Central Okanagan buses still parked, company cuts health benefits

The company, First Canada, wants a rebate on the premiums for the rest of November now that the drivers are on strike

Transit workers have been on the picket line nearly a week

As the Central Okanagan bus strike enters its second week, the union representing striking drivers is accusing the company that runs the transit system of refusing to pay health benefit premiums for the workers, despite collecting money for those premiums from workers last month.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1722 president Scott Lovell told the Capital News Thursday, it appears the company, First Canada, wants a rebate on the premiums for the rest of November now that the drivers are on strike—that despite the fact health benefits are paid a month in advance.

He said the hardest hit will be to the 10-12 drivers who are currently off the job on disability.

“Right now, helping them is out is a top priority,” said Lovell, who reiterated his call for the company to come back to the negotiating table and talk to the union.

It’s a call that has been echoed by the mayors of Kelowna and West Kelowna recently. Both say while their respective cities are not directly or indirectly involved in the negotiations, they want to see the two sides work out a deal as quickly as possible because the strike is taking a toll on the public, especially students.

With exams currently ongoing at UBC Okanagan and Okanagan College, some students are desperately trying to find alternate ways to get to and from school. An estimated four out of every 10 riders of the local transit system are students.

With an annual total ridership of about four million, Lovell said the strike is adversely affecting close to 11,000 riders per day.

He said when the strike started a week ago Wednesday, the company had a copy of the union’s last contract proposals but has not responded to them.

First Canada is a subsidiary of a multi-national Scottish company contracted to run the local system by B.C. Transit. During the strike, Lovell said the union has not been able to deal with the local office of First Canada, because the parent company’s North American head office in Cincinnati has taken over.

He said in addition to the refusal to pay the benefits for this month, the company is also trying to financially bleed the union by getting an injunction to stop its members handing out information at the Vernon transit office and refusing to pay for time already worked and banked by drivers.

One of the main issues for drivers is the fact they get paid less to drive smaller buses on routes where larger buses are not required. In Victoria, where the system is is operated by B.C. Transit, that disparity doesn’t apply. As a result, Lovell said the situation here is being closely watched by the other transit systems in B.C, that re also are overseen by a partnership of B.C. Transit and their served municipalities and run by a contractor.

The last monetary offer from the company was an increase of 3.25 per cent over three years to the total amount of money to run the system. That would include any money for wages, said Lovell but doesn’t represent a proposed wage hike alone.