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In rare move, special mediator appointed to help resolve Sea to Sky transit strike

Parties will have up to 10 days to reach deal before mediator recommends non-binding settlement terms 
N-Transit Strike 29.11 PHOTO BY TREVOR BODNAR
At 125 days, the Sea to Sky transit strike is now the longest transit strike in B.C. history.

On Tuesday, May 31, the same day the Sea to Sky transit strike tied the record for the longest transit strike in B.C. history, Victoria appointed a special mediator that will work with the two sides for up to 10 days in the hopes of striking a deal. 

Special mediator Vince Ready was appointed only a day after Unifor Local 114 members turned down the latest offer proposed by employer and BC Transit contractor Pacific Western Transportation (PWT) in a narrow 36-32 vote. Now, the parties will have 10 days to come to a mediated settlement. If a deal cannot be reached in that time, Ready will provide the parties with his recommended terms for settlement, which they will have five days to accept or reject. 

Although it is not obligated to do so, Unifor has agreed to put whatever settlement package Ready recommends to its membership for a vote. 

“The goal for both parties is to reach a mediated settlement prior to the 10 days and for Mr. Ready to not have to issue any recommendations,” said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s western regional director. “But in the event the parties don’t agree, this process allows an independent, well-respected mediator, who has not been involved to date, to look at the issues with a fresh set of eyes and make recommendations that we will take to our membership and they will have a chance to vote on. We think it is important to both the mediator and the employer that we’re saying right out of the gate that the members are going to get to vote on it.” 

Appointing a special mediator is relatively rare in B.C. labour relations, and is typically done in disputes that have a particular public interest. Most recently, in February 2020, the NDP appointed two special mediators—including Ready—to resolve an eight-month forestry dispute on Vancouver Island between Western Forest Products and United Steelworkers Local 1-1937. In that case, 81.9 per cent of United Steelworkers union members voted to ratify a five-year agreement with the forestry company.   

Now 125 days in, the Sea to Sky transit strike has officially surpassed the previous longest transit strike in provincial history; in 2001, the Liberal government of the day legislated buses back on the road in Metro Vancouver after 123 days. 

“It’s disappointing to have the longest transit strike in B.C.’s history happen in the Sea to Sky corridor,” said Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton on Tuesday.  

“A hundred and twenty-three days with only five days of negotiation is outrageous. The failure to make a deal is only delivering mutually assured destruction for everyone involved in the Sea to Sky transit system—especially those who can least afford it: the riders.” 

In a statement Tuesday, PWT said the offer that was unanimously recommended by Unifor’s bargaining committee last week included an increase in wages compared to its May 11 offer, with annual wage hikes of 1.5, two, three, three, and four per cent over the term of the deal, resulting in a driver wage rate of $36.46 an hour at the beginning of Year 5. Under the now expired agreement, drivers made $31.92 an hour at the start of Year 5. That’s in addition to a two-per-cent signing bonus as well as employer-paid benefits for all employees and an agreement to transition to the union’s preferred defined benefit pension plan, points that had been previously agreed upon in negotiations. Although it moved the needle closer, the deal would not have achieved wage parity with Coast Mountain Bus Company workers in Vancouver. 

“We believe this was a fair final offer and trusted that the committee’s recommendation to accept would yield a positive result in voting and allow a re-start of operations in the near future,” PWT said in its statement. 

In a lengthy open letter posted to its website Thursday, May 26, the night before negotiations were set to resume, PWT’s director of B.C. operations Steve Antil questioned the idea of wage parity given how much he said transit duties can differ across communities, and that Sea to Sky workers are already “close to the top of the heap” when it comes to wages. 

“A transit driver isn’t simply a transit driver—it’s not the same job as in Metro Vancouver. In terms of the intangibles, the Sea to Sky has significant advantages for transit employees compared to heavily urbanized areas. Not the least of which is working for a smaller employer, where employees are able to talk with their managers every day,” Antil wrote.

“Driving in the city involves gruelling commutes, long split shifts, heavy city traffic, and health and safety concerns that drivers in the Sea to Sky deal with on a much smaller scale. Squamish, Whistler, and Pemberton offer a living experience that is not comparable to the major urban centres, and that is why we choose to live here.”

While union members don’t all agree on certain elements of the proposed deal, McGarrigle said there was no disagreement when it came to Antil’s letter, which he believes may have ultimately swayed Monday’s vote. 

“A hundred per cent of the members were absolutely outraged at the ratification meeting at the comments on behalf of Mr. Antil denigrating the work that they do and making facile comparisons that don’t even hold up to the most basic of scrutiny,” he said. “I think the public knows there may be some differences [compared to Vancouver] in traffic patterns and things like that, but there are unique challenges in both areas. It is public transit, it is the same job, it is ultimately a public service and people need to be treated with respect.” 

At press time, no timeline had been set for the mediated talks to begin.