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Whistler council shoots down nuclear option in Sea to Sky transit strike

A day before talks broke off yet again, Whistler officials shot down a proposal to end their contract with BC Transit, stop paying lease fees, and start a shuttle service.
Unifor national representative Gavin Davies, right, addresses local transit workers, who held a rally in Whistler on Friday, May 6 outside the Lower Mainland Local Government Association conference.

A day before restarted talks broke down yet again in the Sea to Sky transit strike, Whistler council shot down a nuclear option that could have seen the municipality end its longstanding contract with BC Transit and launch its own shuttle service. 

At the regular meeting of council on Tuesday, May 10, Councillor Ralph Forsyth expressed his frustration that the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) hands were tied in an opaque bargaining process between BC Transit’s subcontractor and the union representing local transit workers. 

“Good contracts make good friends and we need something that allows us to exert some control over an operation that exists in our community,” he said. 

“No one seems to care except us and no one is coming to any resolution—but we’re getting the blame.”

Forsyth then went on to propose several drastic measures that he felt would put pressure on both sides to reach a deal: giving 180-day notice to BC Transit that the RMOW would be terminating its cost-sharing contract, cancelling lease fee payments to the operator, and launching its own shuttle service that would ferry local workers up and down Highway 99. 

“Cancelling the contract is to call their bluff, but stopping payment is not,” he added.  

The motion, and a subsequent one to explore the legal viability of these three options, was ultimately voted down.

While the other councillors echoed the sentiment behind Forsyth’s bold proposal, the prevailing thought was to let the bargaining process play out instead of risking losing BC Transit’s 47-per-cent cost-sharing load to run transit in the corridor. 

“This action would cut our existing service in half. We need the province’s money to run the kind of transit service Whistler needs,” said Mayor Jack Crompton. 

“I think we have to respect that process,” added Coun. John Grills. “This is the process in this province and there’s a lot of unionized employees in our hotels, there are unionized employees in the RMOW and they respect that process, and I think if we put a hammer to that process it would not bode well for us.” 

There was also concern that such a move would impact Squamish and Pemberton as well, not to mention Sea to Sky leaders’ longstanding push to get regional transit service launched in the corridor. 

“Another consideration is that something we’ve been working years on is regional transit,” said Coun. Cathy Jewett. “We are going to look like a very poor partner—although they haven’t been the best partner either. I think it would be a big step back on regional transit, potentially.” 

On Wednesday, May 11, employer Pacific Western Transportation (PWT) and Unifor Local 114 jointly agreed to resume negotiations alongside mediator Dave Schaub. By the end of the night, talks had broken down for the third time. 

Since the job action began on Jan. 29, the two sides have spent just four whole days at the bargaining table. While progress had been made on extending benefits and pension plans to local transit operators, wages remain a sticking point. 

Pique asked PWT last week if there was any wiggle room on the wage issue, but a spokesperson declined to comment with the negotiations ongoing. 

If the parties aren’t able to come to a timely resolution, there are two other options that could bring a restart to transit service: entering into third-party arbitration, which would allow buses to roll again as talks progress—although Unifor declined this option in March after PWT wouldn’t budge on wages; and the province legislating operators back to work, which is what the BC Liberals did in 2001 after transit in Metro Vancouver was shut down for 123 days, still the longest transit strike in B.C. history. But whether the labour-friendly NDP would go that route is anyone’s guess.