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No end in sight for Sea to Sky transit strike

With only three days at the bargaining table since strike began, parties resort to trading barbs in the media
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WIth the Sea to Sky transit strike moving into its third month, local taxi companies have been left to handle the surge in demand.

The Sea to Sky transit strike shows no signs of a resolution more than two months since it began after the union representing local transit operators declined to go into arbitration.  

In a statement last week, Pacific Western Transportation (PWT), the private company contracted by BC Transit to deliver transit in the corridor, said it had reached out to Unifor on March 22 to see if the union would agree to enter a binding interest arbitration. Two days later, Unifor indicated they would not agree to arbitration. 

“Whistler Transit Ltd. and Diversified Transportation are frustrated with the Union’s response, as we believe we are doing everything reasonably possible to provide a fair and reasonable settlement to ensure transit services can be returned to the communities in the Sea-to-Sky region,” PWT’s statement said. PWT represents the employers, Whistler Transit and Diversified Transportation in Squamish. 

Unifor Local 114, the union representing striking transit workers, issued its own release the same day contending that PWT wasn’t telling the full story, a sentiment that was echoed by Unifor’s western regional director Gavin McGarrigle in a phone call with Pique

“What they didn’t tell the public is they withdrew the offer they made on March 17, and of course these were the offers that the bargaining committee was prepared to recommend, subject to the one outstanding item on wage parity,” he said in an interview on Friday, March 25. “Under the right circumstances, binding arbitration can move things forward where there’s good faith, but what they’ve done is try to stack the deck to get the result they want.” 

That prompted a follow-up from PWT, which provided a statement to Pique on March 29 explaining the company only withdrew its previous offer after Unifor had rejected it. So, if the parties did enter arbitration, the third-party arbitrator would have the ability to review the entire settlement package, as opposed to just wage rates.  

“Interest arbitration should not proceed while an offer is open. The Union cannot have it both ways,” PWT said in the statement. 

“Interest arbitration is one way to achieve a fair and reasonable collective agreement, end the strike, and restore normal transit services to the community. An interest arbitrator listens to both the Union and the Company, and then decides what the new collective agreement should be.” 

Transit services are also allowed to resume while arbitration is ongoing. 

The offer that was turned down by the union last week included benefits for all employees paid entirely by the employer, as well as a commitment to adopt Unifor’s CAAT pension plan for all workers. The private contractor also offered fully retroactive wage increases in each year of the proposed deal, as well as a large signing bonus—but it doesn’t appear ready to budge on wage parity. 

“At the end of the day, nobody has made an economic argument as to why there should be such a wage disparity. All we ask for is a roadmap to deal with that and it’s been rejected time and time again,” McGarrigle said. 

Unifor has consistently called for wage parity with transit workers in Vancouver, where, earlier this month, they voted to ratify a one-year contract extension that included a three-per-cent wage increase for transit operators and a five-per-cent hike for skilled tradespeople, further widening the gap in relation to transit employees in the Sea to Sky.

Grumblings among local officials seem to indicate there is little, if any, money in the provincial coffers for wage increases. As previously reported, it’s Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy’s understanding much of the funding in this year’s provincial budget allocated to BC Transit for operational increases in the Sea to Sky are for increases that have already taken place. 

“So that money is already spoken for. That means the NDP has not budgeted any money for transit in the Sea to Sky over and above its existing service, which doesn’t bode well for regional transit service, obviously,” Sturdy said in an interview this month. “But it also creates a real squeeze on what BC Transit and their contractor is able to offer in a wage settlement going forward.” 

McGarrigle has pushed back against that assertion, noting there are contingency funds built into the B.C. budget that could be used to shore up the wage gap in a settlement package. 

Both BC Transit and PWT have declined interviews throughout the strike, with PWT preferring to provide written statements while the negotiations are ongoing. 

Since local transit workers began their strike on Jan. 29, the two sides have spent just three whole days at the bargaining table. That hasn’t stopped them from trading barbs in the media, however. 

“I’m convinced one of the most important aspects of strong representation within both unions and companies is the ability to negotiate and get deals done,” said Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton at the March 8 council meeting. “The unwillingness to talk doesn’t serve the drivers or our community. We need transit service to return in our corridor yesterday.” 

As previously reported in Pique, the parties haven’t met with an appointed mediator since Jan. 11. Mediator Dave Schaub was first brought in by the Labour Relations Board in September. 

There are no future plans for the two sides to meet.