Whistler bus strike may be looming 

Whistler Transit Limited bus drivers and mechanics this week voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action, if certain conditions are not met in their collective contract negotiations.

Talks between workers and their employer, Pacific Western Transportation Limited, broke down last Friday (March 23) and 93 per cent of workers subsequently voted Tuesday in support of the option to strike. A formal notice of strike action had not been issued as Pique went to press Wednesday.

Whistler Transit Ltd. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Pacific Western Transportation and operates public transit in the Sea to Sky Corridor including Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton.

The Canadian Autoworkers’ Union represents the 63 Whistler Transit staff currently involved in the talks. Their three year contract expires on March 31, along with other transit agreements currently being negotiated with different employers in the Lower Mainland. Todd Romanow, president of CAW Local 114, says Whistler Transit staff want wage and benefit parity with fellow transit workers in Vancouver. However, he says they are not following Vancouver’s lead in terms of strike action and the current contract will carry over into April at this stage.

"Unlike Vancouver we are not withdrawing services on April 1 st and have no immediate plans to do so," Romanow said Wednesday. "We are looking for a deal, not looking for a strike."

Romanow says staff working in the corridor want a 13 per cent pay increase in the first year to bring them up to the same level as Vancouver transit staff. He says Whistler drivers are paid $19.54 an hour compared to $22.04 in the city.

"They do the same job and some of them say it’s even a tougher job because in Whistler they have to deal with mountain road conditions and snow," he says. "The cost of living in Whistler is higher and the current disparity makes it hard to attract drivers – this season Whistler Transit was short of staff."

However Romanow acknowledges a 13 per cent wage hike is significant.

"Privatization has resulted in such imbalances but we are willing to negotiate if needs-be, because it is a large jump."

The second key issue for Whistler Transit workers is the extension of medical, dental and welfare benefits. Romanow says: "Only 17 of the current peak-time 63-strong workforce receive these benefits, which is ridiculous, especially since some of the so-called part-time staff work full-time hours and have been doing so for several years."

He says the union wants benefit accessibility to be based on the number of hours worked, but that is up for negotiation.

"We have proposed a figure that is lower than the company would like. I understand Pacific Western pays 90 per cent of the benefit costs, with employees having the remainder taken off their wages."

Romanow says Whistler’s local bus service has the highest ridership of any public transit system and the benefits to staff should reflect this. "The loss per seat that has to be subsidized by the government is only 27 cents compared to $3 to $5 per seat in Vancouver."

However Ron Burrows, general manager of Whistler Transit Limited, says the two centres are not comparable and to do so is pointless.

"The riderships are totally different between a resort and a normal urban transit system," he says. "Whistler buses carry up to 3,000 people an hour when the lifts close and there are so many issues such as a different demographic, lack of parking and visitors."

He says CAW appears to want to drag Whistler into the wider strike issue affecting a large base of the population throughout Victoria and the Lower Mainland. He stresses that the local talks should remain between Whistler Transit Limited and the union, not with the municipality or provincial government that provide approximately 50 per cent of public transit funding in the corridor.

"The collective agreement is between us and our employees and the union should not be trying to bring in other parties as it has suggested."

Burrows says the company wants to keep the talks flowing and is waiting to hear back from the CAW regarding their next meeting.

"A lot of Whistler’s workers rely heavily on the buses and they will be the hardest hit if a strike does occur, as they are typically on minimum wage and have no other transport options."

The union says it reached some consensus during Friday’s session over the subject of seniority status. It says positions will now be ranked according to an employee’s length of company service, rather than their accrued hours. Romanow says this prevents the "dog eat dog" scenario of people losing their place on the company ladder if they are forced to take time off for sickness or other reasons.

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