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Now 119 days in, talks resume today in Sea to Sky transit strike

Employer wonders if wage parity with Vancouver workers is 'reasonable' given how much transit jobs differ across communities
N-Transit Strike 29.11 PHOTO BY TREVOR BODNAR
The Sea to Sky has been without transit service since Jan. 29.

Days away from becoming the longest transit strike in B.C. history and talks are set to resume today in the Sea to Sky transit strike, only the fifth day of bargaining since the job action began in late January. 

Now on its 119th day, the four-month-long strike is nearing the record set in 2001 when transit was shut down in Metro Vancouver for 123 days, before the Liberal government of the day legislated buses back onto the road. 

The parties, Pacific Western Transportation (PWT), contracted by Crown corporation BC Transit in the Sea to Sky, and Unifor, the union representing local transit workers, will be meeting with mediator Dave Schaub from B.C.'s Labour Relations Board. 

The major sticking point remains achieving wage parity with Coast Mountain Bus Company transit workers in Vancouver. 

On Thursday, May 26, PWT posted a lengthy open letter to its website from director of B.C. operations Steve Antil, laying out the company's background and timeline of negotiations. Antil specifically touched on the issue of wage parity, which he called "an interesting monetary demand considering that rates for Transit employees around the province vary quite a lot, and drivers in the Sea to Sky are close to the top of the heap."

In March, the company put forward an offer that would have raised driver wages to $33.71 an hour, representing an annual salary of $70,100 for a full-time driver, in addition to fully retrocative wage increases in every year of the deal along with a large signing bonus and a compensation package that would ensure all employees would be provided benefits. The union rejected that offer, insisting on parity with Coast Mountain Bus Company workers. 

"Only Coast Mountain Bus employees in Greater Vancouver receive significantly higher wages. Even within Metro Vancouver there are community bus drivers and Handy Dart Drivers providing services directly comparable to those in Sea to Sky that receive considerably less compensation than the Drivers in Sea to Sky for doing the same kind of work," Antil continued in his statement. 

"So is parity with Vancouver-based employees fair and reasonable? The argument from the Union is that the cost of living is similar, and the job is the same. While the first point is certainly arguable, it’s on the second point that the Union misses the mark. 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. 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 centers, and that is why we choose to live here."

Antil went on to say that Sqwuamish and Whistler Transit currently has employees on its roster who "choose to make the 1.5+ commute, in each direction, from the Lower Mainland to drive transit for us rather than sign up for the available Coast Mountain transit jobs. Why? We've had an employee resign to go work for the 'same job' in Vancouver only to quit and come back to [the] Sea to Sky. Why? These jobs are simply not the same thing." 

In negotiations on May 11, PWT offered two settlement package options: One containing an agreement on wage increases in Year 1 and 2 of a five-year deal, along with meeting the union’s demands on pension and benefits. This package also included an agreement that both parties would enter binding arbitration regarding wage increases in Year 3, 4 and 5 of the deal.

PWT said the second option contained higher guaranteed wage increases over the span of the five-year deal—which would have drivers earning $36.29 an hour, for a full-time salary of $75,500, a $9,100 increase per year over the current rate. It also included an offer to convert from the company’s contribution pension plan to the union’s preferred, defined benefit pension plan.

The union, in turn, said for the first time it offered to delay wage parity with workers in Vancouver until April 2024, but said PWT refused. 

Another option presented by Unifor would have slightly modified one of PWT's recent offers of a signing bonus, but converted to wages spread out over the five years of the agreement, “leaving the parties only $0.25 per hour apart on transit drivers’ wages in 2024,” Unifor said. The union said PWT turned down this offer as well.

“Negotiations on May 11 moved the parties closer to a deal,” said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor's Western region director, in a release earlier this month. “I’m confident that, if the employer can creatively acknowledge a reasonable roadmap to wage parity during the life of the next agreement, we’ll have a deal.”

In his letter, Antil went on to say binding interest arbitration is "seemingly the most sensible next step to take. It is a route that would end the work stoppage and allow transit services to resume while arbitration goes forward and we work on reaching a fair and reasonable deal." PWT said Unifor rejected the company's offer to enter into arbitration after talks broke down in March. 

Antil said PWT—which has declined media interviews throughout the strike—has "taken to negotiating in the media" for the first time in the company's history, "as we feel we have been left with no other option."

"We feel that the community has the right to know the full details of how things have unfolded to date and the efforts that have gone on behind the scenes," he added. "We recognize that there is significant community support for the employees’ cause, and I believe the community supports the workers who have served as drivers, technicians, and cleaners for decades. I do not think they are supportive of a Union that has kept those employees off the job for more than three months. A 15-week-long strike is not fair to the community, and the longer it goes on, the people who are the most vulnerable in our communities are the ones who are paying the highest price." [Editor's note: The strike is now in its 17th week, and is approaching the end of its fourth month.]

Pique will have more as talks progress.