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Parties in Sea to Sky transit strike haven’t met with mediator in weeks

With Vancouver transit workers voting to ratify deal this week, wage gap with local transit workers widens even further 
Sea to Sky transit workers at a rally in Whistler Village on Feb. 18.

The parties involved in stalled Sea to Sky transit talks haven’t engaged a mediator brought in by B.C.’s Labour Relations Board in weeks, confirmed the provincial labour ministry. 

Earlier this week, CBC reported that B.C. labour minister Harry Bains had appointed a mediator in the ongoing dispute, but a ministry spokesperson confirmed mediator Dave Schaub was first brought in back in September. While employer Pacific Western Transportation (PWT), which is contracted by BC Transit to deliver transit in the corridor, said it has been in contact with Schaub regularly throughout the negotiations, including as recently as this week, neither party has met with him since Jan. 11. Bains also contacted both parties this week to encourage them to get back to the bargaining table. 

But the reality is the province has few mechanisms to force the issue at this point, said Liberal MLA for the Sea to Sky Jordan Sturdy. 

“He doesn’t have the levers to force them to a mediator,” Sturdy said of the labour minister. “He can’t force them to meet. He can’t force them to agree.” 

Negotiations between Unifor, the union representing striking transit workers in Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish, and PWT sputtered to a halt Feb. 25 just one day after talks resumed for the first time since the job action began Jan. 29. 

The day prior, PWT had proposed a settlement offer that included a wage increase for all employees in each year of the agreement and retroactive pay increases back to 2020, as well as full benefits for all employees. Unifor did not put the offer to its membership for a vote, nor did it present a counter proposal. 

“We remain committed to achieving a fair and reasonable agreement,” said a spokesperson for PWT in an email this week. “We encourage the Union to reconsider their position and return to the table, where we can have an earnest discussion that will bring employees back to work and resume transit operations for the Sea-to-Sky communities.” 

The union said it was “disappointed” with PWT’s offer, contending the proposed wage increase did not cover the rising cost of inflation and the proposed benefit package “didn’t reach what we needed to see in terms of getting benefits for employees in a fair manner,” Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s western regional director, told Pique last month, declining to get into specifics.  

Sticking points 

The main sticking points for the union concern wages, benefits and job security, particularly in light of the high cost of living in the corridor. Unifor has continually said that drivers make anywhere from $3 to $5 less than their counterparts in Vancouver and Victoria, although PWT has pushed back on that point, noting the high variability in wage scale depending on experience. PWT has also taken issue with the union’s claims that 38 per cent of the bargaining unit are currently without benefits. Although it wouldn’t say what percentage of employees aren’t currently covered, PWT told Pique it offers a group RRSP pension plan and full extended health and disability benefits to all year-round, unionized employees, in addition to a “good portion” of seasonal staff. 

Unifor has consistently called for wage parity with transit workers in the Lower Mainland, and with a vote this week to ratify a one-year contract extension for Coast Mountain Bus Company workers in Vancouver that included a three-per-cent wage hike for all operators and a five-per-cent hike for skilled tradespeople, the gap has been widened even further. 

“The settlement has gotten farther away because this employer will just not acknowledge that this is a very tough market to hire operators, to hire skilled trades, and when you’re talking about regional transit, finding a roadmap to get some parity of conditions between here and just down the road is not an unreasonable request,” McGarrigle said.  

Now Unifor is calling for PWT to step aside so the union can negotiate directly with BC Transit, as it does in Victoria, where the Crown agency employs roughly 700 staff to operate the provincial capital’s transit system itself. Part of the motivation for that, McGarrigle said, is it would give a clearer window into the corridor transit system’s funding breakdown. 

“Pacific Western Transportation isn’t on the stock market anywhere; they don’t have to file public reports, so we don’t know how much they are taking out of dollars that have already been allocated [by BC Transit],” he said. “We just simply don’t know if it’s the contractor that is taking its slice of the profit or is it underfunded by BC Transit? I’ve said this from Day 1 of the dispute that it is a question for BC Transit to solve and a question for these mayors to solve as to who’s on first here.” 

A representative for BC Transit declined to comment, other than to issue the same statement it had previously during negotiations saying it is hopeful the parties will resume talks in the near future. 

Budgetary blocks

With a number of public-sector labour contracts up for renewal in B.C. this year, you can be sure the NDP is keeping a close eye on how negotiations play out in the Sea to Sky.

Considering the rising cost of living in the corridor, escalating fuel prices and Consumer Price Index (CPI) rates, Sturdy believes the kind of wage bump local transit workers are looking for—and in the MLA’s opinion, deserve—could be difficult to achieve. 

“It feeds into the future. You give people [a five-per-cent wage increase]; well, I tell you: that’s going to hurt a lot of people, not the least of which is the public purse,” he said. 

Sturdy also pointed to this year’s provincial budget as another potential barrier to funding. It’s his understanding that much of the funding allocated to BC Transit specifically 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,” he said. “But it also creates a real squeeze on what BC Transit and their contractor is able to offer in a wage settlement going forward.” 

There is an estimated $178 million earmarked in this year’s budget for BC Transit. The provincial agency is responsible for 47 per cent of the cost of transit in communities where it operates, with local governments covering the remainder. 

In Whistler, the RMOW is saving an estimated $2,000 a day in transit expenses every day of the strike, but it is anticipating “a significant loss against the forecasted revenue for transit this year,” according to a municipal spokesperson. “This is due to pass refunds that will need to be provided as well as reduced ridership as a result of the strike. It should be noted that February and March are normally two of the highest months for transit revenue as they are among the highest transit ridership months in Whistler.” 

The RMOW is also anticipating commuting patterns could change coming out of the strike, said Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton, with more members of the public opting to walk or bike after growing accustomed to a prolonged transit shutdown. 

A ‘dangerous’ situation 

Now more than 40 days into the job action, Whistler’s mayor is fed up. 

“I’m frustrated. I’m upset,” Crompton said. 

But beyond the obvious impacts of a transit strike on a community so reliant on a young, seasonal workforce is a couple of troubling knock-on effects: more pedestrians on the highway and more drunk drivers on the road, according to the RCMP. 

“This is a dangerous situation for our residents,” Crompton added. “Transit is critical to this community’s health and safety and it is unacceptable to me that the parties aren’t talking to each other.” 

With the parties not likely to close the gap anytime soon, there is one idea that has been floated as an absolute last resort: legislating striking transit staff back to work, a move you can assume the labour-friendly NDP would be reluctant to make. 

“It’s a pretty big hammer. It’s a last resort. It was implied that we are not near that spot yet,” Sturdy said following his discussions with the labour minister this week. 

“This is a critical service for all four communities, when you add Mount Currie to it. We need to be back up and running as soon as possible and in a fair and equitable way.”