Coast Mountain Bus skilled trades workers want to be paid the same as those at SkyTrain. Should they be?

UPDATE — Nov. 27, 2019: A tentative deal has been reached between the union representing thousands of transit workers and Coast Mountain Bus Company, narrowly averting a complete suspension of bus service in Metro Vancouver. Unifor said strike action is over and bus service is returning to normal levels.

EARLIER STORY: 

The labour dispute between TransLink's Coast Mountain Bus Company and its workers is now into week four, with full-on commuter chaos looming next week if the union goes through with a three day strike starting Wednesday.

The union representing drivers and maintenance workers says the wages of its skilled trades workers — electricians and mechanics, for example — remain a major sticking point in the negotiation impasse. 

It is demanding that the approximately 1,000 workers who keep the buses and SeaBus running be paid the same as skilled trades workers at SkyTrain.

SkyTrain workers belong to a different union, CUPE, and work for a different TransLink company, B.C. Rapid Transit Co.

"[Coast Mountain Bus Company] completely rejects the notion of parity for skilled trades workers even as they acknowledge that they have a shortage of skilled trades workers, that they cannot retain them and that they pay several dollars an hour more at SkyTrain," said Unifor chief negotiator Gavin McGarrigle when talks broke off last week.

According to Unifor local 2200 president Mike Smith, skilled trades workers at Coast Mountain currently earn an hourly wage of $40.09, roughly $2.90 less than workers at SkyTrain.

"Same jobs, same company, different rates of pay," said Smith. "It's not fair and equitable in our mind." 

The union representing SkyTrain workers, however, sees it a bit differently. 

Ben Nelms/CBC

CUPE local 7000 president Tony Rebelo says the pay discrepancy is justified because the demands of the jobs are so different.

"Our vehicle technicians are multi-disciplined mechanics that deal with a lot more specialized equipment," said Rebelo. "Once they get hired, they go through another 28 weeks of specialized training, and that's why there's a difference."

Adding to the complexity is the fact SkyTrain workers are also in a legal strike position and looking for better wages.

TransLink spokesman Ben Murphy says it's wrong to make a simple "apples to apples comparison" when discussing wage parity between Coast Mountain Bus and B.C. Rapid Transit Co.

"They have different job training, different unions, different bargaining history and different employment conditions," he said.

Coast Mountain has offered its skilled trades workers a 12 per cent increase over four years. The company points out that the offer is well above other public sector settlements.

Ben Nelms/CBC

"This is a $10,000 wage boost to skilled trade employees, bringing their annual salary to just under $90,000." said Murphy.

Coast Mountain does agree with the union's position that there is a skilled trades workers crunch at the company. However, Murphy says the problem is region-wide is and not limited to Coast Mountain. 

Smith says without achieving equal pay the staff shortages at Coast Mountain will continue, because workers will simply move to the higher paying jobs at SkyTrain.

"We've had this issue for three years," he said. "We're not going to settle for less than Skytrain parity and you can quote me on that."