Whistler transit operators will begin "strike action" starting at 5 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 29.
The strike will suspend transit services in Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton, except for Squamish’s handyDART service, which will operate with full service hours on weekdays, as it is deemed an essential service.
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.
“Unfortunately, we’re quite a distance apart,” said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s western regional director, in a follow-up interview with Pique Friday morning. “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, 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.
“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.”
McGarrigle said Whistler and Squamish transit workers make anywhere between $3 and $5 an hour less than their counterparts in Vancouver and Victoria.
B.C. Transit operates the service for Whistler and Pemberton under contract to Whistler Transit Ltd. and the Squamish contract is with Diversified Transit. 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."
It’s unclear at this point how long the strike may last, but given how far apart the parties are at the bargaining table, McGarrigle said it “could be a while.”
“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,” he added.
Transit operators will be picketing at the Whistler Transit yard this weekend.
A representative for Whistler Transit Ltd. has not returned a request for comment.
Customers can sign up to receive alerts for their respective transit system at bctransit.com/whistler, bctransit.com/squamish and bctransit.com/pemberton-valley. You can also follow @BCTransit on Twitter for updates.
Check back with Pique for more as this story develops…
This story has been updated since publication.