The latest round of negotiations between transit workers and their employer may be the last line of defence against the prospect of a record-breaking strike.
As of May 24, the Sea to Sky transit strike is roughly a week from setting the bar for the longest transit strike in B.C. history.
The current record belongs to the 2001 job action, which sidelined transit in the Metro Vancouver area. That strike lasted for 123 days.
On Tuesday, at least one transit worker picketing outside the Squamish branch of PWTransit felt hopeful that the new round of talks, scheduled for May 27, may bring some resolution to the strike, which began on Jan. 29.
“I think we all feel like we’re close to the end goal now,” said Kris Hansen, a bus cleaner.
“It feels like it has to finish this time.”
Hansen was one of two members of Unifor Local 114 picketing outside the Squamish Transit building around noon on May 24.
“I would just like to thank all the members of the community for supporting us,” he said.
Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s western regional director, said he hoped the bargaining could lead to a new collective agreement.
“We certainly hope and expect that somehow, someway, there will be a roadmap to parity that our members can vote in favour of,” he said.
Currently, the biggest sticking point for the union remains equal pay. Despite living costs that almost mirror the Lower Mainland, workers in the Sea to Sky earn less than their counterparts in Metro Vancouver.
By the union’s count, gaps between Sea to Sky and Metro Vancouver transit workers are $2.60 per hour for drivers and $6 per hour for cleaners.
Talks that will include mediator David Schaub are expected to resume on Friday. There was a previous effort to bargain in mid-May, but efforts collapsed after one day.
The length of the job action was not lost on the union director.
“In this particular situation, with this particular contractor, with the way that BC Transit has structured this, you know, we’ve seen almost the longest transit strike in British Columbia history,” said McGarrigle.
“And I think that’s, you know, ultimately a failure of policymakers all around. These workers are just asking for what’s fair, and they have the community support behind them, and yet, still, somehow all we see is finger-pointing everywhere.”
McGarrigle said that workers would be willing to hold out as long as necessary to get a fair deal.
“I think the monetary difference is not that far apart; we’re willing to look at other suggestions as to how we can get there,” he said. “And if they’ve got some good ideas, we’re all ears. So I guess that’s what we’re hoping is different.”
Previously, the union floated the idea of modifying one of PWTransit’s offers of a signing bonus, but converted to wages spread out over the term of the agreement, leaving the parties $0.25 per hour apart on transit drivers’ wages in 2024. This idea was refused, the union said.
By PWTransit’s account, the company offered two options that were then refused.
The first option contained an agreement on wage increases for the first two years, while meeting union demands on pension and benefits. This option also stipulated that both sides would enter into binding arbitration regarding wage increases in the following three years.
The second option contained higher guaranteed wage increases over the span of the five-year deal and a conversion from the employer’s pension plan to the union’s plan, PWTransit said. This option, the company said, contained benefits that are consistent with what is outlined in the current collective bargaining agreement.
However, the union did not agree to those terms.
PWTransit told The Squamish Chief that it did not have any further comment aside from the announcement it made on May 18.
“Earlier this week, representatives from Whistler Transit Ltd./Diversified Transportation met with the Minister of Labour, Harry Bains, and, at his request, we have agreed to return to the table with Unifor Local 114 for another attempt at mediation,” reads the company’s statement from that day.
“We are optimistic that this meeting will result in a fair and reasonable deal, returning our employees to work and restoring essential transit services to the Sea-to-Sky communities.”
Impact on locals
While the strike hasn’t generated the same amount of attention in Squamish as it has in Whistler, an SFU professor said that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t having a significant local effect.
Many folks in Squamish commute to the city for work, relying on a vehicle to do so.
However, that’s not the whole situation, said professor Meghan Winters, whose fields of study include transportation and city design.
“So whilst people in Squamish may commute to work in the city — and that may be sort of the primary pattern — most of the trips they’ll take are not work trips,” said Winters.
“[About] 30% of trips people take are for work. Most of the travel people do is for other purposes.”
Public transit can play a big role in helping people who don’t have continuous access to a car.
“Those people are overlooked,” she said. “There’s people with mobility challenges, whether it’s permanent or some kind of temporary injury situation. There’s people who may have moved to Squamish for summer activities and to do jobs in the summer as well, who may not have access to a car there. And those kinds of voices go really widely overlooked when we are not paying attention to having transit.”
Others in this situation can include youth, young workers and families that have just one car — which may be tied up in a commute to Vancouver, she said.
Public transit has an important part to play in the context of the climate emergency, she said. People of all ages and abilities should have transportation available to them.
“It should never be a requirement for somebody to own a car in order to live in a community,” Winters said.
A lack of transit also contributes to significant congestion, which, in a growing community like Squamish, is something that is becoming a bigger problem.
“There’s an influx of people who come to Squamish, and every person who can choose an option other than driving — it’s going to be helpful towards the congestion that really paralyzes… Squamish on weekends and sunny days,” Winters said.
Running out of time
MLA Jordan Sturdy said that the timing of the negotiations are something to take note of.
He said that if the workers and employer don’t come to a deal soon, it may be hard to legislate transit staff back to work.
The province’s legislative assembly will be taking its summer break in June, he said. If the talks fail in the coming days and the government does not have legislation prepared, there could be a delay in mandating people back on the job.
“If that’s not successful, we have one more week left in the legislature to formulate, develop and approve back to work legislation, which is the only mechanism to mandate binding arbitration,” said Sturdy.
“If they’re not successful this week, and the government [is]...not preparing some sort of legislation this week in case there’s a need to mandate binding arbitration, then it won’t be happening until fall.”
The alternative is that the legislature is called back for a day session in the middle of the break to pass legislation forcing workers back to the job, he said.
Sturdy has previously called upon Labour Minister Harry Bains to put the parties into binding arbitration.
“Hopefully, they reach some sort of agreed upon settlement,” said Sturdy. “But I think that we can’t let this thing just carry on, in the hopes that someday it’ll be resolved. It’s just not acceptable.”
Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott had a similar message, stating that it’s time for transit to get back up and running.
“If the parties had been consistently hard at work negotiating and making progress, I would say no to provincial intervention, but that hasn’t been the case,” said Elliott in a written statement.
“Our communities haven’t had transit since the end of January and these two parties have only spent three days at the negotiating table. There is some hope that they are returning to the table on May 27, but this strike has gone on long enough, and there must be a swift conclusion.”
She added that she and the mayors of Whistler and Pemberton have asked the province and BC Transit to compensate regular transit riders with free transit for a period of time.
Elliott said she was worried about the long-term effects this will have on ridership in Squamish.
“We know some residents have had to leave the corridor, because it simply became too hard to get to work or complete daily chores,” she wrote.
“The human toll over the last four months cannot be underestimated. Transit is critical to the province and our community reaching climate-related goals, it is essential to ensuring equity and access to employment and services, and I hope that with some additional effort and support from the province and BC Transit that we can bring back riders.”
At the moment, the District staff are still evaluating the financial impact the strike is having on the municipality, Elliott said.
“Of course, we are missing out on farebox revenue, but there have also been operational savings,” she wrote. “We will be looking for compensation, but our focus remains first and foremost on the impact to the locals who have suffered the most and advocating for a quick resolution to the strike.”