Transit users in Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton will remain without service a little longer, after talks broke off in a bitter labour dispute between BC Transit contractors and unionized workers in the communities.
More than 80 workers servicing the Sea-to-Sky region have been on the picket lines since Jan. 28, over what they say is an unfair wage gap between them and similar workers in Metro Vancouver.
Unifor Local 114 and local transit contractors Whistler Transit Ltd./Diversified Transportation had resumed bargaining this week, however, say talks broke off Thursday evening.
The union says the sticking point was a refusal by the employer to agree to a plan for eventual wage parity with TransLink operators.
The union says transit workers in the region make between $3 and $4 less per hour than their Vancouver counterparts.
“The issue is the cost of living in Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton and the fact is that BC Transit an other transit workers have wages that are significantly higher just down the road,” Chris MacDonald, assistant to the national president for Unifor said.
“This company, a third-party operator will not pay the same amount those workers are making just down the road.”
Driver Gurinder Hothi, who has worked in Squamish for the past five years, said pension issues, benefits for all members and wage parity were why he was on the picket line.
“I have no benefits,” he said.
“Sea-to-Sky is a very expensive right now. Every week everything seems to go up, and our wages are just falling behind more every year.”
In its own release, the contractors’ parent company PWTransit Canada said it was “disappointed” that the two days of negotiations broke off, “as we felt that progress was being made early in our discussions.”
“The company offered a package that met two out of three of the union’s identified priorities,” it said.
“Specifically, all employees would be provided with benefits that are 100% paid by the employer, and we agreed to an introduction to the Union’s CAAT pension plan for all employees. We also offered fully retroactive wage increases in each year of the deal combined with a large signing bonus.”
Squamish Mayor Karen Elliot said both she and residents were growing increasingly frustrated — and desperate — as the dispute drags on.
“We have people that have gone into debt trying to get cabs to get to work, we have families that can’t get to school, to services, to medical appointments,” she said.
“There’s this grand assumption that people have access to cars, and its simply not true. So we have people really struggling in our community right now.”
Elliott said it was “ridiculous” that the strike had stretched into eight weeks, noting that transit was considered an essential service during the pandemic, in order to get front-line workers to their jobs.
“Suddenly that doesn’t seem important,” she said.
The strike has previously drawn the ire of Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton, who told Global News on Monday that the strike had led to an increase in impaired driving and needed to “end and end soon.”
It was not immediately clear when bargaining might resume.
PWTransit Canada said it was “evaluating possible next steps” and that it remained “committed to getting our employees back to work and serving the communities of Whistler, Squamish, and Pemberton.”