Since the Sea to Sky transit strike began on Jan. 29, Whistler resident Jimmy Cheng has settled into a regular routine. Every day, he sends a fresh email to both local and provincial officials calling on them to pressure the parties to get back to bargaining.
“May I remind that this is another day without transit? It is unfair that people have to suffer from this, in which most would agree,” he wrote on Feb. 2.
“Yet another day without transit,” he said Feb. 5.
“Still no transit,” he wrote Feb. 7. “Day 9 and I hope it is not a number that we have to keep counting.”
Despite Cheng’s best efforts, it would appear his daily count will continue for the time being, with no active negotiations ongoing between privately-contracted employers Whistler Transit, Squamish’s Diversified Transit and the union representing local transit workers, Unifor.
“Talks have broken down because there’s a complete unwillingness on the part of the employer to recognize how far behind transit workers in Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish are to many of those other areas, including Greater Vancouver,” said Chris MacDonald, assistant to national Unifor president Jerry Dias.
Local 114 represents more than 80 transit workers at Whistler Transit who voted 98 per cent in favour of striking in August 2021. In that case, negotiations failed to produce a satisfactory offer from the employer, said Unifor. Wages, a lack of benefits coverage for nearly 40 per cent of the unit, pension, and job security remain sticking points for the union. The parties have been working on a contract for more than a year.
In a show of support for transit workers, Whistlerite Isla Robertson launched an online petition calling on the parties to get back to the bargaining table and urging locals to write to BC Transit and its private contractors. At press time, the petition had garnered more than 1,500 signatures. View it at change.org/p/support-s2s-bus-drivers-on-strike.
“I know an online petition is not going to fix a strike tomorrow but I still think it’s really important for community members to be able to show that they do have a voice, that it does matter and they can sign their name to something to show they do care about what happens in this community,” said Robertson, a regular bus rider.
Robertson was particularly motivated to launch the petition after learning that transit workers’ contracts were in limbo for more than a year in the pandemic.
“I just think that is so irresponsible. It disrespects the work that transit workers and especially the drivers do and have been doing in the pandemic,” she said. “To me, it’s another example of this pandemic highlighting how we’re not valuing the workers in our communities that were doing such important work before the pandemic, and now especially during the pandemic.”
As previously reported in Pique, Unifor contends that a major barrier to the negotiations is the way BC Transit structures its third-party contracts, which MacDonald said incentivizes contractors to cut costs wherever they can.
“Of course when you contract things out to a third party, they’re not doing it for charity. They’re a company. They’re doing it because they want to make money, so in order for them to have a cost structure that makes money, then they’re going to have to have certain wage, benefit and pension demands on the workers,” he said.
Those demands have taken the form of capping the number of transit workers that qualify for benefits, as well as proposing a less-than-two-per-cent wage increase in the face of a national inflation rate of 4.8 per cent, MacDonald said. Unifor has previously indicated that Sea to Sky transit workers make anywhere from $3 to $5 an hour less than their counterparts in Vancouver and Victoria.
As the strike drags on, Unifor intends to ramp up its efforts to get the parties back to the table.
“We’re only going to sit in front of the depot in Whistler for so long. We’re only going to sit in front of the depot in Squamish for so long before we start to escalate things and do things that Unifor is famous for, frankly, which is disrupting things in the employer’s world so we can get people’s attention,” he said, noting that Whistlerites can expect to see union members sharing information in the village and strike signs going up at BC Transit property.
BC Transit has referred all comment to its private contractors. Whistler Transit has not returned multiple requests for comment.