Transit workers still picketing in Central Okanagan

The Central Okanagan's transit strike is heading into its second week with nothing resolved

  • Mon Nov 21st, 2016 10:00am
  • News

Robyn Rolke used to ride the bus for several hours a day, where she’d sort out her coursework and squeeze in some studying.

The Okanagan College student takes classes at both the Kelowna and Vernon campuses—in addition to working — and the commute offered the consistency needed to balance it all.

Now, however, she’s at the mercy of her parents, who are taking turns shuttling to her to classes and home between going to their own jobs. They, like her, are starting to bear the brunt of the labour dispute that sent bus drivers to the picket-line nearly two weeks ago.

“I chose to take a class in Kelowna because I knew the buses were somewhat reliable,” Rolke said.

“I’m incredibly frustrated by what’s happening…It doesn’t matter to me who’s to blame for this, but I’d appreciate it being resolved soon.”

The Central Okanagan’s transit strike looks far from being resolved with neither side announcing a return to the bargaining table.

It’s caused a great deal of community concern, and related complaints have led city hall to weigh in.

“We are putting pressure on First Canada and its employees to get back to negotiations and reach a resolution as soon as possible,” wrote Mayor Colin Basran made a statement late last week explaining their role in local transit.

“I have requested an appointment to speak with Transportation Minister Todd Stone about our concerns, and the city has been in daily contact with B.C. Transit officials, urging them to pressure both First Canada and its employees to help end this stalemate.”

Basran added that council has suggested transit service be made an essential service in the hopes some high-volume routes can be restored while negotiations are ongoing.

“There are no winners in a situation like this. This is certainly not something we want to see happen or continue for a long period of time,” said Basran.

No talks have been scheduled yet.

British Columbia Labour Relations Board determined late last week that it was illegal lfor Kelowna transit workers to be picketing at the Vernon transit yard.

The decision, on Nov.17,  has ordered the Amalgamated Transit Union  Local 1722 to cease and desist illegal picketing at or near First Canada’s Vernon facilities, where First Canada employees who are members of Unifor Local 114 work.

Local Union reps said they hadn’t been picketing, just handing out flyers.

“First Canada respects all of its employees and their right to take job action as part of collective bargaining. We are, however, relieved the illegal picket activity at our Vernon transit yard will cease and desist,” said John Peck, Regional Vice President of First Canada Farwest region.

“We empathize with our customers as they struggle to make their way around Kelowna without transit service. The company has made a reasonable offer, similar to other existing contracts in other provincial centres and we remain willing and eager to return to the bargaining table with the union representing our valued employees.”

Local transit workers have been without a contract since April 1 and the union  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 president of ATU local 1722 Scott 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.

First Canada employs nearly 1,000 people (800 unionized) in 24 B.C. communities. First Canada has been contracted by BC Transit to provide services in the Kelowna region until 2022.