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Sea to Sky transit strike may escalate, says union

Unifor Sea to Sky transit workers have been on strike since Jan. 29

A national Unifor official has arrived in Squamish, signalling that a local BC Transit workers’ strike may soon be pressing harder at negotiations with its employer.

Since Jan. 29, workers in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton have been demanding higher wages, health benefits, pension and job stability from their employer, the Pacific Western Group of Companies, or PWT, which BC Transit contracts to run Sea to Sky transit.

On Feb. 8, Chris MacDonald, national assistant to Unifor’s president, said that his arrival in Squamish shows that the union is willing to bring its full strength to come to the aid of Sea to Sky transit workers.

“We only sit on strike lines for so long. I think Unifor’s well known for how we escalate things and folks got to know that that’s going to happen here too,” MacDonald told The Squamish Chief.

He and about a dozen workers were standing in front of the Squamish Transit office on Production Way. Placards and Unifor flags were placed all around the street.

MacDonald said he reached out to the lead negotiator for the PWT, but, according to the union, the company wasn’t willing to change its position.

The current collective agreement expired two years ago, MacDonald said.

“They’re just saying there’s no more,” MacDonald said. “Frankly, she’s saying there’s no point in getting back to the table right now.”

Pacific Western is the parent company of Diversified Transit, which operates in Squamish and Whistler Transit LTD, which operates in Whistler and Pemberton.

On Feb. 8, representatives for the Pacific Western Group of Companies did not immediately respond to The Squamish Chief’s inquiry to see if its position had changed.

The company has previously referred media requests for comment to BC Transit.

BC Transit told The Chief that it would not comment any further beyond what it had already said on the matter.

Previously, BC Transit acknowledged customers’ frustration with the strike, but said it was not at liberty to discuss the issue, labelling it a dispute between transit workers and their employers and Diversified and Whistler Transit.

At the time, the provincial crown corporation also said that handyDART service in Squamish, which is deemed an essential service — for medical appointments, food, prescriptions and education — will operate with full-service hours on weekdays.

Also on Feb. 8, BC Transit sent out a news release, stating it was recognized as one of the province’s top employers in an annual competition published by Mediacorp.

MacDonald said Unifor reached out to the mayors of both Squamish and Whistler, but there hadn’t been any responses as of Tuesday morning.

The District of Squamish told The Chief that it would not be commenting on the labour dispute while bargaining is underway.

“This is a private labour matter between the operating company and its employees, and we hope that both parties stay at the bargaining table to resolve their differences as quickly as possible,” wrote District spokesperson Rachel Boguski.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler was not able to immediately comment, saying that the mayor was in council meetings all day.

“Frankly, it’s only going to be a matter of time before we’re going to have to start doing things to get people’s attention,” said MacDonald. “We’ll have to move this to other locations or other municipal buildings; to BC Transit. There’s just no way we’re going to sit here on a side street and let folks think that they’re just going to break these strikers, because it’s not going to happen.”

He said workers will likely spend the remainder of this week posting strike notices across town and talking to residents about their job action.

MacDonald said that the cost of living in Vancouver and Victoria is similar to that of the Sea to Sky, yet Squamish-area workers are behind what their counterparts in those other places earn.

Ian Boyko, spokesperson for Unifor, said the gaps between Sea to Sky and Metro Vancouver transit workers are $2.60 per hour for drivers and $6 per hour for cleaners.

However, Boyko said, that doesn’t include the gap in benefits and pension. About one-third of Sea to Sky transit workers don’t have benefits, while no workers here have pensions.

He said drivers in the Sea to Sky are currently making $31.92 per hour, while cleaners make $22.19​.

MacDonald said their goal is not to change the world overnight or immediately close the $6-an-hour gap.

“We are looking to have an understanding that what it takes for BC Transit employees — or people who are working for contractors of BC Transit — to live in other areas of B.C. is also reflective of what’s happening in Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton,” he said.

“We don’t leave people in the dark, and we don’t leave them here on the line rotting by themselves.”

The strike has had some effect on local students. Quest University Students' Association did not reply to a request for comment, but the school’s interim dean of students said that there were some minor effects resulting from the strike.

“We have not heard of many students struggling,” said Julie Miller in a written statement to The Chief. “Because we are a residential campus, most of the students live on campus and with the small number of students living off campus, most have cars or have roommates with cars. There has been an impact with students on campus wanting to run errands and get groceries so they have been connecting with each other to hire taxis to share costs, etc. The cost is higher than a bus and it can be difficult to get a taxi in our community. This is the impact we have seen so far.”

The spokesperson for School District 48 said that there were some effects for students travelling to after-class activities.

“We are hearing that the ongoing Sea to Sky BC Transit Worker strike is impacting some students who use local transit to get to and from after-school activities such as appointments, work, extracurricular activities, social gatherings, etc.,” wrote Jennifer Morris to The Chief.

She said the school district did not have any figures on how many students the strike has affected.