At 124 days, Sea-to-Sky region's transit strike becomes longest in B.C. history

·3 min read
From left, striking transit workers Kemal Bhattal, Martin Lemieux, Avtar Toor and Davinder Dhaliwal picket outside PW Transit's Squamish, B.C., facility.  (Liam Britten/CBC - image credit)
From left, striking transit workers Kemal Bhattal, Martin Lemieux, Avtar Toor and Davinder Dhaliwal picket outside PW Transit's Squamish, B.C., facility. (Liam Britten/CBC - image credit)

It's a record few in Squamish, Whistler or Pemberton will cheer about.

Wednesday sees the transit strike in the Sea-to-Sky region hit its 124th day. In doing so, it becomes the longest transit strike in B.C. history.

"I don't think this is a proud moment for anybody that's involved," said Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott. "Our communities are suffering."

About 80 bus drivers and other workers represented by Unifor are striking for better pay and benefits from their employer, PW Transit, a B.C. Transit contractor that runs bus service in the Sea-to-Sky region, which lies north of Metro Vancouver.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The workers are seeking wage parity with their counterparts in Metro Vancouver. Unifor said prior to job action, the average hourly wage for a Sea-to-Sky bus driver was $31.92, while for Metro Vancouver drivers it was $36.71.

According to PW Transit, a tentative deal reached Friday would have brought drivers' wages to $36.46 over a five-year term. Drivers narrowly voted down the deal Monday.

Late Tuesday, the provincial government announced it is involving veteran negotiator Vince Ready to serve as special mediator.

However, patience is running thin in the region, both from politicians and their constituents.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Politicians frustrated

The region's MLA, B.C. Liberal Jordan Sturdy, has urged provincial Labour Minister Harry Bains to impose arbitration but has been rebuffed.

"I don't think that keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best is good enough any longer," Sturdy said in an interview Monday. "I think we have to go to the next step."

Elliott, speaking Tuesday before Ready's appointment was announced, agreed it was time for binding arbitration.

Liam Britten/CBC
Liam Britten/CBC

Municipal leaders have expressed frustration that they pay half the cost of running the buses but are not involved in negotiations to get them back on the road.

Whistler Coun. Ralph Forsyth recently tried — unsuccessfully — to rally his council colleagues to cancel the municipality's contract with B.C. Transit and explore running its own shuttle service.

"I was ready to exercise the nuclear option," Forsyth said. "My opinion was that would get both sides back to the bargaining table."

Workers affected

Speaking at a Squamish picket line, driver Martin Lemieux said he believes support for the workers remains strong within the community but the rejection of the tentative deal has upset some.

"I guess there's lots of stuff on social media denouncing the bus drivers," Lemieux said. "We want to go to work but we're just not getting a fair deal right now.

"We are very close."

Liam Britten/CBC
Liam Britten/CBC

Hotel worker Justin Walter says he still supports the drivers but after moving to Whistler in November without a car, he said it's been a nightmare to go without transit.

Work is an hour's walk away, often in the dark or along a highway in any number of conditions.

He doesn't plan to stay in Whistler much longer.

"An essential service such as buses shouldn't even be something that I'm worried about," Walter said.

"I feel like I'm 16 years old back in my farm town in the middle of nowhere with no bus access. I'm almost 30 now. I should be able to get to work on my own."

In a statement, Bains said Ready will meet with the company and union for up to 10 days and, if a deal is not reached, Ready will submit recommendations to both parties who can either accept or reject them.

The minister didn't say what the following step would be.

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