By Steve Antil, Director of BC Operations for PWTransit:
The residents of Whistler, Pemberton, and Squamish communities all have the same question on their minds: why has the Transit strike gone on for close to four long months and when it will be settled so that service can resume.
The situation is complex, with many factors in play, and I wish there were a simple answer. I recognize this service disruption has caused widespread complications across our community. People rely on transit services in the region, and the lack of them has created hardship for the workers, employers, tourists and families.
I am the Director of BC Operations for PWTransit, the company that operates transit services in Whistler, Squamish, and Pemberton. I’m also a long-time Sea to Sky resident, having lived in Whistler for just over 25 years. Our family depended on the Transit System mostly when our kids were in Highschool, and as young adults, both my son and daughter still rely on public transit for most of their transportation. I’ve worked locally in tourism and transportation since 1996. These experiences, alongside my current role, have helped frame my perspective on the transit strike. Leading into the mediation session planned for May 27th, I’m taking this opportunity to provide context, from the Company’s perspective, on the labour dispute.
PWT is a private Canadian company that has been a family-run business for the past 65 years, and the headquarters for its national Transit business unit is in Prince George, BC. It has been doing business in the communities of BC, providing school busing and public transit services for more than 60 years. Our operating companies employ local residents, such as the entire management team of Sea to Sky transit systems and profits are most often re-invested in BC. PWTransit has been managing the transit system in Whistler like a small business since its infancy in 1993. Even with all our experience, our varied operations in communities across the country, and the many collective agreements that we have bargained for, we are not ashamed to admit that being embroiled in a long strike is a new experience for our company.
Both the employer and the employees stand to lose from a work stoppage in these circumstances. In our case, this is certainly true, as our revenues have depleted, and our reputation in our communities has been affected as well. One of the reasons that governments contract out services is that private companies such as ourselves are incentivized to avoid work stoppages and meet budgets. For employees, even when they receive some strike pay for going out on the picket lines, typically, any gains leveraged at the bargaining table will be eaten up by lost wages in a few weeks. With the seemingly strong incentive to resolve the dispute and return to delivering services, why is this strike still dragging on?
Although the strike has officially been going on since January 29, 2022, PWT and Unifor have been going through frustrating and challenging negotiations dating back to April of 2020. The Pandemic threw our first rounds of talks a curveball. The parties could not meet in person, and there was resistance to the option of holding virtual meetings instead of traditional across-the-table bargaining. Eventually, the parties were able to meet, and the non-monetary issues were settled. When monetary proposals were exchanged, the parties were a long way apart. As in most negotiations, the company started with an offer lower than we expected to settle, though this was merely a starting point.
On the other hand, the Union put forward a proposal that would immediately raise the cost of labour by $1.5 million dollars in the first year (a 30% increase to total compensation) and raise labour costs by $5 million over a three-year term. Parity with Coast Mountain Bus was the demand, a demand that even the Union has admitted the employer can’t agree to and retain the business. It should be mentioned that Bill-30 in 2019 (Labour Relations Code Amendment Act) would make this structural change to the cost of Transit in the area a permanent one for the taxpayers who ultimately fund the system. That law dictates that a Collective Bargaining Agreement and the jobs within it ‘survive’ a change in contractor or in management.
After another round of negotiations, which included an increased offer on wages, the Union held firm on its proposal. The parties were at an impasse, resulting in the BCLRB appointing a mediator on July 15, 2021, to work with the Company and the Union towards a resolution.
When the parties met with the mediator on September 7, 2021, the meeting was extremely short, as the Union indicated there was no point in further discussions because the sides were too far apart. They were not prepared to remove any of their monetary demands and suggested that we spend our time focused on agreeing to an essential services agreement to clear the way for a strike. On January 19, the Union served 72-hour strike notice and indicated that they would walk out on January 29 if a resolution was not reached. The Company reached out to the Union to propose a last-ditch bargaining effort, and the parties met on January 27. Once again, the Union was not willing to move off of its initial monetary position on wages, benefits, and pension. For PWT to offer further concessions would have been to bargain against ourselves. It seemed clear to us that the Union was determined to take strike action.
On January 29, the strike began.
Since the Strike
After meetings in February, which went nowhere, on March 17 – 18, there seemed to be some optimism that the Union was prepared to move on wages. On March 18, the Company put forward our best offer, which would have raised driver wages to $33.71 per hour effective April 1st, 2022 – which represents an annual salary of $70,100 for a full-time driver. It included fully retroactive wage increases in every year of the agreement and a large signing bonus. Additionally, it offered a compensation package that would ensure all employees (including part-time) would be provided benefits with 100% of the monthly premiums paid by the employer and the introduction of the Union’s preferred pension plan, a Defined-Benefit plan, for all employees replacing the current RRSP matching plan. The Union took time to consider the offer, but to our dismay, they rejected it, stating that the only road to resolution was wage parity with Coast Mountain Bus.
Is “parity” with Coast Mountain Bus fair and reasonable?
“Parity” is an interesting monetary demand considering that rates for Transit employees around the province vary quite a lot, and drivers in the Sea to Sky are close to the top of the heap. Only Coast Mountain Bus employees in Greater Vancouver receive significantly higher wages. Even within Metro Vancouver there are community bus drivers and Handy Dart Drivers providing services directly comparable to those in Sea to Sky that receive considerably less compensation than the Drivers in Sea to Sky for doing the same kind of work.
So is parity with Vancouver-based employees fair and reasonable? The argument from the Union is that the cost of living is similar, and the job is the same. While the first point is certainly arguable, it’s on the second point that the Union misses the mark. A transit driver isn’t simply a transit driver – it’s not the same job as in Metro Vancouver. In terms of the intangibles, the Sea to Sky has significant advantages for Transit Employees compared to heavily urbanized areas. Not the least of which is working for a smaller employer, where employees are able to talk with their managers every day. Driving in the city involves gruelling commutes, long split shifts, heavy city traffic, and health and safety concerns that drivers in the Sea to Sky deal with on a much smaller scale. Squamish, Whistler, and Pemberton offer a living experience that is not comparable to the major Urban centers, and that is why we choose to live here.
The fact is, Squamish and Whistler Transit has employees on its current roster that choose to make the 1.5 hour+ commute, in each direction, from the lower mainland to drive transit for us rather than sign up for the available Coast Mountain transit jobs. Why? We’ve had an employee resign to go work for the “same job” in Vancouver only to quit and come back to Sea to Sky. Why? These jobs are simply not the same thing.
We are not saying that Sea to Sky transit jobs are easy nor that our employees are undeserving of wage increases. We believe that our people perform an essential and critical job for the community and should be well compensated. We want it to be clear that we are doing all we can to deliver a fair, reasonable compensation package within our means.
Translink in Greater Vancouver has quite a different and significantly more expensive funding model than other regions of BC. Their model includes a gas tax and other revenues that are higher or not available in the Sea to Sky.
The 2019 Sustainable Services Negotiating Mandate directed public sector entities (including BC Transit) not to accept a total labour cost increase of more than 2% per year over a three-year term. BC Transit does not participate in bargaining; However, the Bargaining Mandate is one factor informing whether enough funding be can secured for Whistler and Squamish Transit’s contract costs. The total cost of the most recent package proposed by the Company exceeded the Bargaining Mandate by more than 50%. The Union rejected that package.
That proposal, presented at the May 11, 2022 negotiations, was a part of two options given to the Union, which would restore transit services to the communities.
- Option one contained an agreement on wage increases in years one and two and met the Union’s demands on pension and benefits. This option also included an agreement that both parties would enter into binding arbitration regarding the wage increases in years 3, 4, and 5.
- Option two contained higher guaranteed wage increases over the span of the 5-year deal, which would have drivers earning $36.29 per hour ($75,500 per year for full-time drivers) by April 2024, representing a $9,100 increase per year from the current rate. It also includes the Union’s preferred pension plan and contains benefits that are consistent with what is outlined in the current CBA.
We were disappointed when the Union, again citing a roadmap to parity, informed the Company that they weren’t prepared to recommend either option to their members and walked away from the table.
When evaluating our next steps, binding interest arbitration is seemingly the most sensible next step to take. It is a route that would end the work stoppage and allow transit services to resume while arbitration goes forward and we work on reaching a fair and reasonable deal. Binding arbitration is an effective way for both parties to lay out the merits of their cases and have fair and appropriate decisions made by an unbiased third-party arbitrator. After the breakdown of the March talks, we offered to take the risk of entering into binding interest arbitration on the complete monetary portion of the CBA; however, the Union declined the offer and is unwilling to enter into this process.
If they believe their demands are reasonable and, as they’ve stated, there’s no argument to be made against “parity,” one must question why they are not only unwilling to move forward into interest arbitration but why they are not sprinting to the hearing room to demonstrate this fact? If the Union desires a fair deal that allows our employees to return to work sooner and restore essential transit services to the community, this is an effective way forward.
For the first time in our company history, we have taken to negotiating in the media, as we feel we have been left with no other option. Out of respect for the bargaining process, it is not something we typically do, and we do not take voicing these opinions lightly. We feel that the community has the right to know the full details of how things have unfolded to date and the efforts that have gone on behind the scenes. We recognize that there is significant community support for the employees’ cause, and I believe the community supports the workers who have served as drivers, technicians, and cleaners for decades. I do not think they are supportive of a Union that has kept those employees off the job for more than three months. A 15-week-long strike is not fair to the community, and the longer it goes on, the people who are the most vulnerable in our communities are the ones who are paying the highest price.
We are working as hard as possible, alongside the Provincial Mediator, to try and bring this situation to resolution when we meet again on May 27, 2022.