Low employee morale and a bitter dispute over overtime pay are adding to the challenges for BC Ferries, says the head of the union representing workers at the publicly owned company.
“The relationship between the employer and the employees, and the employer and the union, is at... an all-time low,” said Eric McNeely, president of the 4,000-member BC Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union.
McNeely said he doesn’t remember the relationship ever being so strained in the 14 years he has worked for BC Ferries. “I meet with members every time I travel, just about everywhere I go, and they’re struggling and they shouldn’t have to struggle to get the pay that they are owed for doing the work they conducted.”
BC Ferries has had a growing number of cancelled sailings, many of them due to staffing shortages. Ferries can’t sail unless they meet the minimum crew requirements Transport Canada sets. That has meant travellers with and without reservations experiencing long waits, even on weekdays in October when ferry traffic is relatively light.
In an Oct. 26 message to members, McNeely wrote that the union’s grievance over premium overtime — which kicks in after a worker’s first two hours of overtime and provides extra pay — had been denied by the company. It could take another two years to resolve the issue through arbitration, he said.
“The senior management in the Ferries [human resources] team have decided to do exactly what we feared they would with a plethora of new management, which is to take a well-known past practice around what qualifies a worker for premium overtime and blatantly disregard it,” he wrote.
“This means that for the foreseeable future... you and your co-workers will work long extended hours with no consideration of the rights that you have enjoyed uninterrupted for many many years,” he said. “Anyone that has worked up and down this coast under our collective agreement knows full well what you deserve and that you shouldn’t have to fight for the paltry wages you have earned.”
The union’s current contract runs to 2025, but there is an option to renegotiate wages sooner under a process that is now underway.
The company’s position sends a stark message to workers, McNeely told union members. “I have little choice but to believe the worst at this stage, which is to say that the relationship between our members and the management of this company is broken. I see this as nothing less than a total disregard for our members and our families, our needs, our rights, the requirement to put food on the table, and a roof overhead.”
The overtime issue contributes to BC Ferries’ staffing issues and cancelled sailings, McNeely said in an interview.
“I think what we’re seeing is people are being less inclined to come in for overtime,” he said. There’s the pay issue, but also the way workers are sometimes treated by members of the public who are themselves frustrated with the level of service. “Someone who’s been yelled at or spit on or hit at work is less likely to come in on their day of rest to make sure there’s enough bodies in.”
BC Ferries president and CEO Nicolas Jimenez was unavailable for an interview.
Jimenez moved to the ferry company in March from the Crown corporation ICBC.
The appointment was seen with some optimism by the union. “Nicolas was able to do a lot of good at ICBC,” McNeely said. “He put out that dumpster fire. It appears he’s moved to a bit of a floating dumpster fire.”
In early October, BC Ferries announced a reorganization of management that created five new divisions and made public affairs and marketing its own division.
The union notes the changes added four new vice-presidents, though the company’s press release said “the size of BC Ferries executive leadership team remains the same as a VP position vacated a year ago is now filled.”
Leadership changes present both opportunities and challenges, and there’s been a lot of change over the past 18 months that has left many in the union feeling frustrated, McNeely said. “The question now is, are my members going to be able to work at BC Ferries long enough to realize change, to realize a positive impact of new leadership, or are people going to start going elsewhere because they can’t wait?”
The union surveyed its members earlier in the year and found more than half had taken on a second job or found another way to add income, he said, adding that ferry jobs need to be good, stable work.
“My members used to donate to food banks, and now they’re doing withdrawals,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of ferry workers who are just barely hanging on.”
BC Ferries itself has acknowledged increased absenteeism and rising turnover of employees having contributed to more unscheduled overtime and challenges for the company.
When ferry workers leave for other jobs, it makes it that much more difficult for BC Ferries to hire new people, McNeely said. “Every employee who leaves BC Ferries for a different employer, they’re usually taking bad news with them and that makes it even more challenging to recruit into a less competitive sector of the marine industry.”
Ultimately the company needs more workers available so fewer people are being called in on their days off, he said, and it needs to listen to its workforce.
“People need to see real action and I would challenge the leadership of BC Ferries to go out to the terminals, to the fleet, and stay out there for a week or two,” McNeely said. “I think if BC Ferries as an organization isn’t prepared to listen to the voice of their workforce through the union, then they need to go out and speak with the members themselves for an extended period and get that unfiltered impact from them.”
He said he’s optimistic BC Ferries can fix its problems, but it’s going to require following through on its commitment to take a more people-centred approach.