Strike could take buses off the road Monday

Cowichan Valley Transit Workers are poised to go on strike next week depending on the outcome of two final days of negotiations

Cowichan Valley Transit Workers are poised to go on strike next week depending on the outcome of two final days of negotiations with their employer, First Canada, which provides transit services around the Cowichan Valley and to the City of Victoria.

Stu Shields, national representative for Unifor, the union representing the workers, stated that the employees have been without a contract since March 2015, although hard bargaining has only been going for the past two months. The union has voted 100 per cent in favour of a strike unless First Canada takes its current demands off the table.

“We were perfectly ready to issue our strike notice last week but based on the talks we said we’ll withhold doing that…because in good faith we think we might be able to strike a deal this week,” said Shields. “We’re hopeful that when we get together Thursday there will be a framework for a deal, in which case we won’t serve 72 hours.”

A strike would affect all routes within the Cowichan Valley as well as the commuter bus to Victoria.

The union is looking for a settlement that mirrors the agreement reached between BC Transit and the City of Victoria last August. Shields said while they are not seeking the same dollars per hour as Victoria, but they do want the same raise percentages and premiums that Victoria achieved.

“We can tweak all that so it fits within the scope of their budget. But if [First Canada] think they’re getting a cheaper settlement than Victoria got then get ready to be taken out,” said Shields.

The union is demanding a 5.95 per cent pay raise over five years plus $1 extra per hour because they are willing to accept a step wage grid for new hires, whereby it takes four years for new drivers to reach the full wage. (Currently new hires move immediately to the full wage after their training.)

According to Shields the current wage rate for drivers in the Cowichan Valley is “just shy of $25 an hour.”

Shields said one of the sticking points has been First Canada’s desire to restrict benefits to only full-time employees, even though many of their part-time employees are working full-time hours.

“We’ve said absolutely not…If they work full-time hours they’re entitled to full-time benefits,” said Shields.

In a press release late last week, Shields said he is calling on the provincial government and BC Transit, which contracts out the transit service to First Canada, to encourage the company to take all concessions off the table and accept the union’s demands.

He said he has not heard anything from the provincial government, but felt positive about his talks with BC Transit.

In an email to the Citizen, BC Transit media and public relations advisor Mike Russell said: “We contract out the operations services to private operating companies who manage and hire their own services. As such, the labour dispute is between our service contractor for the area, First Canada, and their unionized employees.”

However, Shields believes that BC Transit can and should get involved with the collective bargaining process. “My position is…‘Yes you can. They’re your contractor. Ultimately you’re responsible for getting the service out,” he said.

First Canada could not be reached for comment by press time.

If strike notice is issued by the union, bus service in the Cowichan Valley could shut down as early as Monday.