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Striking Bus Drivers Try to Force BC Transit to the Table

Only the Crown corporation can end the dispute that’s left the region without service, it says.

Zak Vescera 7 Jun 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

A union representing striking Fraser Valley bus drivers wants to negotiate directly with a provincial Crown corporation after months of failed talks with the contractor that runs the service.

Roughly 200 transit workers in the region have been on a full strike for nearly three months, leaving several cities without bus service and severely restricting public transportation options for seniors and people with disabilities.

Those workers are represented by CUPE 561 and work for First Canada ULC, a private company contracted by BC Transit to run bus services in Hope, Agassiz, Abbotsford, Chilliwack and other parts of the region. Transit services in most communities across B.C. are provided by contractors chosen by BC Transit.

The union, which sought a big wage increase, has repeatedly called on BC Transit to intervene in its dispute with First Canada ULC, arguing more public funding is needed to meet its demands.

And now the union is trying to force the Crown corporation to the table.

On May 26 the union filed an application to that board arguing BC Transit is either their real employer, or a common employer alongside First Canada ULC. No date has been set for a hearing on the application.

That would allow striking transit workers to picket other BC Transit worksites and could pressure the Crown corporation to bargain directly with the union to end the dispute.

“All we know is there is going to be more funding needed to make this deal happen,” CUPE 561 president Randy Kootte said in a previous interview with The Tyee. “The funding needs to be there, for sure, whether or not this company can afford it or not.”

CUPE 561 has accused First Canada ULC of inducing the strike by saying it needed to put pressure on BC Transit to increase funding to the company.

The union also recently launched a failed attempt to force BC Transit’s top executives to testify at a labour board hearing.

Meanwhile, drivers have gone months without regular pay and many of the Fraser Valley’s poorest residents have no way to get around.

“I think there is a level of frustration and even despair, if I’m being honest,” said Jason Lum, chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District. “That’s what I’m hearing and seeing. It’s yet another setback for folks who are already struggling to get by.”

How it began

The last collective agreement between First Canada ULC and CUPE 561 expired in 2020.

When the parties started bargaining last year, CUPE 561 sought a one-time wage increase of 32 per cent plus annual increases.

Kootte told The Tyee First Canada’s drivers are paid significantly less than drivers for neighbouring bus companies. They also asked for a pension plan, something not included in their current contract.

“Our members are paid 32-per-cent less than all the other public transit workers across the region for doing the same job,” Kootte said.

Colin Gusikoski, a lawyer representing the union, said at a recent hearing the union wanted parity with the contract offered to drivers for Coast Mountain Bus Co., a subsidiary of TransLink.

Donovan Plomp, a lawyer representing First Canada ULC, said it was impossible to compare the two companies because his client has to bid competitively for contracts whereas Coast Mountain is a public entity.

Plomp said the union’s wage requests were “unprecedented” and noted First Canada ULC can’t increase its revenues to meet those demands, since all of its funding comes from BC Transit.

The union served a strike notice in January and began job action in February, which became a full strike on March 20.

Kootte said many bus drivers have had to find other employment to make ends meet. Under their last contract with First Canada ULC, a conventional bus driver in 2019 would have started out making $26.28 an hour and maxed out at $27.52.

“A lot of them have second jobs already because of how low their wages are,” Kootte said in an interview in early May.

A tense hearing

For months, the public story of the strike was that the company and the union were simply too far apart at the bargaining table.

Last month, the union made an extraordinary claim.

In a submission filed to the Labour Relations Board, CUPE 561 said First Canada ULC had told its negotiators in January that the “only way” to get their desired wage increase was via job action.

Kootte said he took that to mean a strike was the only way to ratchet up pressure on BC Transit to secure more funding.

But at a meeting in early May, Kootte claimed First Canada ULC said it would not meet the union’s wage requests even if it had additional funding.

The company also declined to tell the union exactly how much it was receiving from BC Transit under its operating agreement, citing confidentiality.

“They’ve been saying all along they can’t pay it. And when we asked for proof, they didn’t really bring the information they were required to bring,” Kootte said in an interview last month.

The issue came to a head in a tense Labour Relations Board hearing last Thursday.

The union sought a declaration that First Canada ULC had been bargaining in bad faith, something the company’s lawyers denied.

Plomp said the lawyer who spoke to the union in January had meant the union’s requests would end in job action because they were so high, not that job action was a means to securing more funding.

The union also sought orders forcing BC Transit to provide its unredacted operating agreement with First Canada ULC.

The union also issued summonses for BC Transit CEO Erinn Pinkerton and COO Tim Croyle, trying to compel both of them to appear at its labour board hearing with First Canada ULC.

Instead, Adriana Wills, a lawyer representing BC Transit, appeared at the hearing and announced the unredacted operating agreement had already been sent to the union.

Wills also asked the board to stop the union’s attempts to summon BC Transit’s executives, arguing it was “pure and simple harassment” since the document had now been released. She said questioning her clients would amount to a “fishing expedition.”

She and Plomp, the lawyer for First Canada ULC, also suggested that testimony could affect the union’s separate application that BC Transit is in fact an employer of their members working for First Canada ULC.

Gusikoski, the union’s lawyer, said the suggestion he and his clients had an ulterior motive was “offensive” and a “silly conspiracy theory.” He argued the union needed to hear from BC Transit as part of its case.

Plomp, though, said the concern remained even if there was no evidence it was intentional.

Vice-chair Carmen Hamilton sided with the employer and cancelled the summonses for BC Transit’s executives. The hearing has since been adjourned and no dates have been set for a return.

The Tyee has since reached out to the union, the employer’s parent company and BC Transit seeking comment on the union’s application. None answered specific questions by deadline and neither of the involved parties provided The Tyee with a copy of that full application.

In a statement, BC Transit spokesman Jamie Weiss said the dispute was between a contractor and its employee and the Crown corporation would not comment.

In the meantime, Lum says the strike continues to weigh heavily on low-income residents of the Fraser Valley who depend on transit to get around.

BC Transit estimates there are approximately 13,000 boardings on an average weekday in the Chilliwack and Fraser Valley transit systems, some of which represent the same customers taking multiple trips.

CBC News has reported some students at the University of Fraser Valley paid hundreds of dollars out of pocket for rideshares or cab rides to get to class.

Meanwhile, HandyDART transportation services for seniors and people with disabilities have been limited to medically essential trips.

“It’s definitely affecting the most vulnerable in our community,” Lum said. “Seniors, folk with disabilities and accessibility challenges, students, young people — that is who is really bearing the burden of this interruption.”

Lum and other municipal leaders have repeatedly urged the parties to return to the table.

Trevor Halford, the transportation critic for the BC United Party, put forward a private members’ bill in the legislature that would declare all HandyDART services essential, forcing those drivers back to the job.

Lum said Chilliwack wants to see more investment overall in its transit services to build ridership and encourage use.

He says the province should intervene directly to help the parties reach a deal.

“It feels like we’re stuck on the outside of this,” Lum said. “You’re trying to respect the collective bargaining process. You’re crossing your fingers that these two parties will get to the table together and at least start some kind of productive talks.”  [Tyee]

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