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‘Last-ditch’ negotiations set for next week to avoid potential Sea to Sky transit strike

Union representing more than 80 local transit workers says job action would begin Jan. 29 if no deal is struck
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The union representing local transit workers is planning to go on strike Jan. 29 if a deal is not struck by then.

The union representing local transit workers is hopeful a series of “last-ditch” negotiations planned for next week will help avoid a strike.

According to a release on Friday from Unifor, BC Transit’s refusal to "close the pay gap" between Whistler-area transit operators and their counterparts in Vancouver and Victoria is at the root of the potential job action.

“It’s about treating transit workers with fairness and recognizing the cost of what they do is so important to the travelling public,” said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s western regional director, in a follow-up interview. McGarrigle said Whistler and Squamish transit workers make anywhere between $3 and $5 an hour less than their counterparts in Vancouver and Victoria. “They somehow think that magically the cost of living has changed so much from Vancouver to Whistler and Squamish, when, if anything, it’s the other way around.”

Local 114 represents more than 80 transit workers at Whistler Transit who voted to strike in August 2021. In that case, negotiations failed to produce a satisfactory offer from the employer, says 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.

“In this case, you have things like artificial caps on how many people can be covered on benefits, so it’s not tied so much to the status of the workers and whether they’re working full-time hours, but an artificial cap of how many people would be on benefits at a given time,” McGarrigle said.

BC Transit is the provincial Crown agency responsible for delivering transit outside of Greater Vancouver, and contracts these services to private operating companies. In a release, the agency said the dispute is between BC Transit contractors Whistler Transit Ltd. and Diversified Transit and their unionized employees. “BC Transit is closely monitoring the situation and hopes the parties will find resolution soon,” the release went on.

But in McGarrigle’s mind, at the core of the dispute is how BC Transit structures its third-party contracts.

“BC Transit controls equipment, overall budgets, a lot of things on a day-to-day basis. What they do is outsource, essentially, the day-to-day labour relations and management of specific employees. But in terms of everything that would be needed to address broad issues, it is BC Transit,” he explained. “Overall there’s too much money involved to maintain this fiction, even if it holds up legally, that these subsidiary companies are the ones calling the shots. It’s deliberately set up this way so they can try to claim that. But the public knows what’s on the side of the buses: it’s BC Transit.”

While Unifor officially filed a 72-hour notice of job action, McGarrigle said they wanted to give the public ample notice of a potential strike, with an actual deadline to strike a deal set for 11:59 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 28. If no deal is struck by then, the job action would begin the following day. Only HandyDART service in Squamish, which is deemed essential, would continue operations, with full service hours on weekdays.

“BC Transit sincerely apologizes to customers for the inconvenience caused by this matter. BC Transit understands the frustration felt by customers, and that the job action is difficult for everyone involved in the region,” BC Transit said in its release.

A driver shortage has led to a series of service disruptions in the resort as of late, compounded by recent extreme weather as well as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But recruiting qualified drivers to Whistler has long been a challenge, even prior to the pandemic.

“If people are going to live in a community they should be able to earn enough to live in the community. In this case, when people do the economics of moving there, if it doesn’t add up, it doesn’t add up,” McGarrigle said. “The gap’s just gotten too big to be sustainable. The members are fed up and ready to take full action if they can’t get a deal.”

BC Transit will update customers as more information becomes available and encourages customers to sign up to receive alerts for their specific transit system at bctransit.com/whistler, bctransit.com/squamish and bctransit.com/pemberton-valley.

Customers may also follow @BCTransit on Twitter for updates.

This story has been updated since publication as more information became available.