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Sea to Sky transit strike negotiations stall at the bargaining table

Whistler workers, business forced to get creative with transit service on pause 
transit strike by BD
Whistler Transit workers seemed in good spirits as they took to the picket line on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 29, saying they just want to get back to serving their customers.

Nearly a week into a strike that has suspended transit service throughout the Sea to Sky corridor, it appears negotiations at the bargaining table have come to a complete halt. 

“Based on recent information as we understand it, there aren’t any active negotiations at this time,” said Diana Chan, board chair of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, on Monday, Jan. 31. “Our focus is on working with the Squamish and Pemberton chambers and other business associations to put the call to the parties to get them back at the table. This doesn’t help anyone. It’s not just a business issue; it’s a community issue.” 

Transit operators hit the picket line on Saturday, Jan. 29, suspending services in Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish, except for Squamish’s handyDART service, which is deemed essential and will continue to operate with full service hours on weekdays. 

The job action is necessary as BC Transit’s contractors “refuse to close the pay gap for Whistler-area transit operators,” said Unifor in a release on Jan. 28. The union said Whistler and Squamish transit workers make anywhere between $3 and $5 an hour less than their counterparts in Vancouver and Victoria.

Whistler workers and businesses have been forced to get creative to shore up the sudden lack of transit. Chan said employees are arranging carpooling where possible, or switching shifts around to accommodate staff who live further away, while some small businesses have adjusted their operating hours to better align with staff’s commuting time. 

Other larger organizations have arranged shuttles to ferry employees to and from work. A spokesperson for Whistler Blackcomb confirmed the company has organized a shuttle looping West Side Road for those who cannot easily walk to work, with pickup times at 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. and 4 and 5 p.m. at the end of the day.  

Even with the workarounds, the impacts of a lengthy transit strike would deal yet another blow to a workforce and business sector that has already suffered through the uncertainty of COVID-19 and a worsening labour shortage. 

“For a workforce that has been challenged in every way, this is not something we need,” said Chan. “This is another restriction [that impacts] employee mental health and I want to ensure people understand this is not just about getting to and from work.” 

Christian Boone, managing director of the Whistler Athletes’ Centre in Cheakamus Crossing, said staff, guests and athletes training at the centre are “deeply reliant” on public transit to get around. 

“I think it really depends on the guest, but it’s very common,” he said, noting that because the centre has a self-cook kitchen, guests typically rely on grocery stores in Creekside and the village for their supplies. 

Further complicating the situation is the fact there are just over a dozen parking stalls at a facility with 140 beds.

“This building was built during the [2010 Olympic] Games and I think at that time Cheakamus was looked at as a green community where we wouldn’t have a lot of cars,” Boone said. “But the reality is, a lot of people have one, two cars in this area and the businesses just wouldn’t be able to survive without the transit.” 

For Pemberton and Mount Currie, the effects of the job action are even more acute. BC Transit’s Pemberton 99 bus is a crucial link to employees who commute to Whistler, which speaks to the ongoing need for a more robust regional transit system that links Pemberton and Mount Currie to the corridor and beyond, something local officials have been pursuing for years.

“We’re just going to wait and see what happens with the strike. If it carries on, then I guess we’ll have to come up with [a transportation alternative for Mount Currie residents],” said Lil’wat Chief Dean Nelson.  

Taxi companies and ride-hailing service Whistle! have struggled to pick up the slack in the wake of the strike. Whistle! GM Andrew Bacon said his drivers were kept busy over the weekend, but, like so many other businesses in town, a lack of staff is making it virtually impossible to meet the surge in demand. 

“Are we as a local rideshare company and taxis able to step up and fill the gap of the buses? Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s very difficult for us as a rideshare company, and I’m sure for the taxis. They just stop answering their phones, and I don’t blame them. We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people looking for rides.” 

Bacon said the average wait time during peak hours this weekend was anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes. (Whistle! also introduced a pooling option on Saturday.) Counting 26 drivers on the platform and a fleet of seven Whistle!-owned cars (independently contracted drivers may also use their own vehicle), Bacon said the platform would need at least another 20 drivers to meet the demand. “We’re moving a lot of people. We’re moving a couple thousand people a weekend now,” he said.

‘Unfortunately, we’re quite a distance apart’ 

In an interview with Unifor shortly after news of the impending job action came to light last Friday, Gavin McGarrigle, the union’s western regional director, said the parties were far from any kind of consensus at the bargaining table.  

“Unfortunately, we’re quite a distance apart,” he said. “BC Transit wants to hide behind its contractors, and the contractor made it clear they don’t see a route to closing the gaps and getting to a fair agreement, so we have no choice but to strike.”

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 reality is if you want to have a decent transit system in an era of driver shortages, inflationary gains and a lot of pressure dealing with COVID, then you’re going to have to compensate them appropriately,” said McGarrigle. “And if they don’t want to do that then unfortunately it’ll be the people who rely on transit who suffer.”

BC Transit operates the service for Whistler and Pemberton under contract to Whistler Transit Ltd. and Diversified Transit in Squamish. McGarrigle believes it is BC Transit’s reliance on private contractors that is at the root of the dispute.

“There’s only one of two things that are true here: either BC Transit hasn’t funded the contractor enough to make sure they can be treated fairly like other transit operators in markets like this, or they have a contractor that is trying to get ahead by undercutting the wages, benefits and working conditions to try to make a buck,” he said. “Ultimately we really don’t believe there should be a role for these kinds of private contractors in a public transit system, because the only way they can save money is to cut labour costs below what a public entity would do.”

While BC Transit uses private contractors throughout much of the province, in Victoria, hundreds of the company’s employees are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the city’s bus service, and Unifor deals directly with the agency in negotiations there.  

“The real sad thing is BC Transit seems to be taking a hands-off approach” in negotiations, McGarrigle said. “Workers know what kind of service they’re delivering, they know they’re undervalued and the insertion of a contractor just makes negotiations difficult.”

BC Transit has referred comment to its contractors, but in a release Friday, apologized 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,” it said. “BC Transit is closely monitoring the situation and hopes the parties will find resolution soon.” 

If history is any indication, it could be some time before a deal is reached in the Sea to Sky. While both Victoria and Greater Vancouver narrowly avoided looming transit shutdowns in 2013 and 2019, respectively, after 11th-hour deals were struck, Vancouver’s last transit strike came in 2001 and lasted a record 123 days, still the longest transit strike in B.C. history. 

“One thing I do know about transit workers is that when they’re bound and determined to take job action, they will last as long as it takes,” McGarrigle noted. 

A representative for Whistler Transit Ltd. has not returned multiple requests for comment.