Picketing Central Okanagan bus drivers feeling community support as strike carries on

"One of our fellow community members needed our transportation and we couldn't help her. That's upsetting..."

The benefits of public transit became abundantly clear to a number of Kelowna residents Tuesday, when they were left to  trudge through puddles on their way to where they needed to go.

“There was a person we saw when we were picketing today, who was not happy she had to walk an hour to get to class,” said Scott Lovell,  president of ATU local 1722, following a rally on the Highway 97 overpass that was supported by multiple unions.

“She was upset, but she wasn’t rude. The expression on her face, though, was the biggest reason why we didn’t want to strike. One of our fellow community members needed our transportation and we couldn’t help her.  That’s upsetting.”

Lovell and all the members of the the local transit union have been on strike since last Thursday, following stalled contract negotiations between drivers and BC Transit contractor  First Canada. First Canada operates the conventional and handyDART services in the Kelowna region.

In the near-week that has passed they’ve mostly gathered support, despite the inconveniences they’re facing.

“We have a huge majority of support from the public,” he said.  “But we were forced into this situation to have a strike.”

Lovell said the last thing drivers wanted to do was cause problems for the 11,000 people who take transit each day, or the the 185,000 in their service district.

Drivers, he said, just want equitable treatment.

The 217 transit workers in the Central Okanagan have been without a contract since April 1 and the Lovell said they were close to reaching a deal a week before the strike, then an offer from First Canada that didn’t meet even their most basic needs came in and that triggered job action.

“We are not being treated fairly, or like drivers in anywhere else in B.C.” said Lovell. “It’s embarrassing and sad.”

One of the main sticking points in contract negotiations has to do with what he calls a “bus is a bus” system.

In other cities, like Victoria, the size of the bus doesn’t affect wages. Locally, if a driver is assigned to drive a smaller community bus, he or she is paid about $4 per hour less while driving the smaller bus, despite licensing requirements being the same.

“It’s incredibly unfair,” said Lovell, adding that First Canada didn’t even touch that issue with their latest contract offer.

Nor did they offer much in the way of wage increases.

“We are being paid about 15 per cent less than what they make in the Lower Mainland and when you add in the pension we don’t get that puts us at another 10 to 12 per cent less than them — and we have a similar cost of living,” he said.

Lovell added that local drivers aren’t asking for parity with their counterparts in other areas of the province, rather just a raise of 2.5 per cent, which was also denied.

All of these issues, and the strike itself, are things that he would like to see either BC transit or the city intervene on their behalf for.

Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran, commented on that call during Monday’s council meeting, noting it’s not the city’s place.

Labour negotiations, he said, are between First Canada and the transit union, not the city

“They are not municipal employees,” Basran said. He said First Canada is contracted to operate the local transit system by B.C. Transit.

“But no one benefits from a strike like this,” he said, calling on both parties to get back to negotiating.

The city of West Kelowna has also publicly stated it is not involved in the ongoing labour dispute/

That’s a view Lovell takes issue with.

“If there are  customer complaints, then the city tells the company how to follow up,” said Lovell.

“So are they hands off or hands on? They can’t have both.”

While the city is not intervening in the labour dispute they are keeping the community apprised of what’s happening with transit passes.

In their latest press release on the matter, the city said transit passes will be refunded on a pro-rated basis, for any service disruption over three days in length. Refunds will be available, with proof of purchase, at Kelowna City Hall once strike action is ended,” reads a city missive.

Receipts or transit passes are suitable proof of purchase.

ll scheduled conventional and handyDART services in the Kelowna Regional Transit System are affected.  Essential service levels are being maintained for handyDART patients requiring dialysis.