Sea-to-Sky Transit Strike: Longest in B.C. History

From UBC Wiki

Strike Motivations and Demands

Striking Sea to Sky transit workers of Unifor Local 114 rally in Whistler on February 18, 2022. Photo by Oison McHugh[1]

Transit workers in the Sea-to-Sky region[2] went on strike to pursue pay parity with Transit workers working with the Coast Mountain Bus Company in Metro Vancouver. Striking Sea-to-Sky transit workers claimed that house prices and the cost of living in the Sea-to-Sky region were approaching similar levels to Metro Vancouver, yet they were being paid $4-$5 less per hour than transit workers working with the Coast Mountain Bus Company in Metro Vancouver[3].

Public transit workers in the took strike action starting January 29th 2022. Ending June 15th 2022 after 136 days, it is the longest strike in B.C. history[4]. The previous record was set in 2001 when transit workers across the Metro Vancouver refused to drive Coast Mountain’s fleet of buses for 123 days[5].

The transit companies involved in the strike were Whistler Transit Ltd. and Diversified Transportation, operating under contract with B.C. Transit in the Whistler, Squamish, and Pemberton communities[6]. The bargaining unit was Unifor Local 114, representing approximately 90 transit employees (i.e. drivers, technicians, cleaners) who operate and maintain the transit vehicles.

Sea-to-Sky transit workers had been operating without a formal contract with B.C. Transit after the previous expired in March 2020[6]. Talks had stalled due to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic[6]. Transit workers demanded a new contract within increased wages that would match those of the Metro Vancouver transit workers and adjust year over year to account for annual cost of living increases.

The striking workers were approached with a tentative renewal agreement in May of 2022 by the bus companies, but it was rejected by the union. Whistler Transit Ltd. and Diversified Transportation argued later to a mediator that the tentative agreement struck in May 2022 should form the basis of any settlement[6]. The employers also argued that the offer contained in the tentative agreement, while not meeting the wage and benefit provisions of the Coast Mountain collective agreement, compared favourably with similar comparator collective agreements in the industry[6], such as those in Prince George, Port Alberni, Comox, Campbell River, Kelowna and Kamloops. The employer also noted that Whistler Transit pays drivers the same rate whether they are driving large or small buses[6].

Impacts on Affected Communities

A man walks along Highway 99 which connects the towns of the Sea to Sky region months into the transit strike. Photo by Ben Nelms[7]

The service interruption created difficulties for the communities that were previously served, particularly for those who relied on public transit to commute to and from their workplaces. To get to work, some community members hired taxis[8], with one resident spending as much as $2,000 on taxis to get to and from work from February to mid March[9]. Low income workers without access to other methods of transportation would walk to work on busy, dangerous highways[10].

The length of the strike prompted the mayors of Squamish and Whistler to call for a resolution to the dispute in the local media in March of 2022[11]. According to the Whistler mayor, there was a ‘dangerous increase’ in drunk driving due to the strike[11]. The transit strike also particularly impacted the tourism industry in Whistler[12]. 120 kilometres from Vancouver, Whistler draws an approximate 3 million visitors each year[13] and was already reeling from the travel restrictions to combat COVID-19[14].

The impact on communities was a primary focus of the CBC coverage from as early as January 2022 until the end of the strike, specifically the disruption that the strike was causing in the Sea-to-Sky communities and the frustrations expressed by the residents. Often, this focus would overshadow the other aspects of the story.

For example, the article "Sea-to-Sky bus strike hits 10-week mark with talks in neutral, causing widespread frustration,"[15] leads with a quote from a resident who said, in reference to the strike, "It sucks," and "I think it's a joke." However, later in the article the CBC mentions that most residents they spoke to were sympathetic to the striking workers, yet they decided to lead with a quote that expressed frustration and disdain for the quote while not including any quotations from the mentioned sympathetic residents. Additionally, the CBC frequently would quote several residents voicing their frustrations and difficulties as a result of the strike while only including one quote, if any, from a union members expressing their experiences supporting themselves with no income while on strike[15].

Negotiation Process

Brief History

Whistler transit map. Routes on Highway 99 toward Pemberton. Map from BC Transit[16]

Although the union commenced strike action on January 29th, 2022[17], the mediating parties (the bargaining unit represented by Unifor Local 114 and PW Transit representing BC Transit’s contracted service provider) had been engaged in negotiations since April 2020[18] after the parties’ previous collective agreement expired on March 31, 2020[6].

A key area of contention was the wage and benefits parity with counterparts in Metro Vancouver[19]. Negotiations were initially disrupted by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic[18]. When the parties met in person, they engaged in collective bargaining for ten days (between November 2020, and July 2021), however it did not help in finding a solution[6].  

On January 29th, 2022, the bargaining unit settled in for action on the picket line and the strikes began. On May 30th, 2022, the union and its bargaining committee rejected a tentative renewal agreement[6] which was negotiated with the assistance of board-appointed mediator Dave Schaub.

In late May 2022, veteran mediator Vince Ready was appointed by Harry Bains, Minister of Labour for British Columbia, to arbitrate a settlement and get the transit services running again[20]. On June 6, 2022, Unifor Local 114 members met to review the outstanding issues and accept special mediator Vince Ready’s recommendations for a resolution[21].

Negotiation Outcomes

Vince Ready’s key recommendations[6] involved Cost of Living Adjustments[21] (COLA)[22] to deal with the issue of rising the cost of living and housing prices in the Squamish/Whistler area, as well as closing a wage gap between transit workers in the Metro Vancouver and the Sea to Sky region[21].

A BC Transit sign outside of the Whistler BC Transit depot where workers were picketing, is plastered over with a Unifor "On Strike" poster. Photo by Ben Nelms[23]

The new five-year contract included annual wage increases of 1.5% in the first year, 2% in the second, then 3%, 3%, and 4% for a total 13.5% increase over the five year term, plus a 2% signing bonus for 2022. Members also obtained a pension package upgrade from a group Registered Retirement Savings Plan (Group RRSP)[21] to a Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology (CAAT) Pension Plan[24] and secured a benefits plan for part-time workers, who were not previously covered[21].

Canadian Media Coverage of the Negotiations

The issues highlighted by the media included transit workers' walkouts during negotiations[25], and the tentative nature of the negotiations[26] that involved two mediators - including Ready - over a period of nearly four and a half months as talks broke off and resumed repeatedly[27]. The Pique News Magazine[28] and Vancouver’s major English-language daily The Vancouver Sun[29] examined, among other issues, the rejections made by transit workers in the early stages of negotiating deals which led to a protracted arbitration process. By the end of May 2022, many outlets such as the CBC[3], The Squamish Chief[30] and Global News[31] began reporting on the long duration of the strike that was a result of, among other issues, the failure of the mediation process in bringing the parties to a resolution to end the job action. The retroactive pay increase coming from the Ready-recommended COLA clause was especially discussed in articles by The Vancouver Sun[32] and The Socialist Alternative[33].

Public Response

The CBC documented the general frustration[15] reflected in the public on the delays in negotiations and the subsequent relief[10] that communities of Squamish, Whistler, and Pemberton expressed on the strike’s conclusion. The Pique News Magazine[34], the CBC[8], and Global News[27] highlighted the social and economic strain suffered by residents of the Whistler/Squamish area in their coverage of the event. The articles included quotes from interviews with community members who spoke about taking a taxi, hitchhiking and arranging rideshare groups under financial constraints[27]. A CBC article reported a section of community members’ support for a fair contract for transit employees even as they acknowledged how the lengthy process had impacted their lives.[27]

A petition[35] launched by a community member who expressed sympathy for the striking drivers, which received more than 1500 signatures at the press time, was covered by The Pique News Magazine[36], the CBC[10], and The Squamish Reporter.[37] At the July 19 Whistler council meeting, a “non-performance clause” was brought to consideration in a discussion tabled by Whistler officials to proactively ease the impacts a future strike action could bring along. This clause would be included in the council’s new Annual Operating Agreement (AOA) with BC Transit in case a job action is organized,[38] according to The Pique News Magazine.

Coverage by Local Outlets

Photo included in The Squamish Chief article: 'There were two transit workers picketing the Squamish branch of PWTransit on May 24'. Photo by Steven Chua[39]

This section features a select few examples and a concluding analysis of articles published from news organizations across the province of British Columbia. It includes not only local branches of national outlets like CTV News Vancouver, but also independent newspapers and magazines from the region, such as The Squamish Chief. In total, twenty-five articles from twelve outlets were considered.

Local Coverage of the Start of the Strike

Generally, local news organizations failed to properly document the growing disputes between Unifor Local 114 and BC Transit throughout January 2022 even though strike action appeared increasingly likely. Pique News Magazine, a Whistler-based news outlet, was one of the few who informed their audiences about the growing likelihood of a strike. Pique broke the news of the union’s decision to take action in Brandon Barrett’s article ‘Whistler transit operators to go on strike at 5 a.m. Saturday’[40].

The article provided practical information about the strike, including mentioning the affected areas of Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton and that Squamish’s HandyDART service will remain in operation as it was considered essential. For context it provided information about the union, detailing that it represents 80 transit workers at Whistler Transit, along with a history of previous industrial actions and disputes with BC Transit. Interestingly, like a CTV News Vancouver article published on January 31st 2022 titled ‘No end to transit strike in Sea-to-Sky corridor’[41], Pique reported on the diffuse aims of the Union. It detailed how the ‘sticking points’ revolved around wages, lack of job security (and benefits) and disagreements over proposed pension plans.

The Pique article included a pessimistic quote from Gavin McGarrigle, the Western Regional Director of Unifor National (a quote from McGarrigle was near universal in every article from a local outlet about the strike). McGarrigle justified the strike and discussed the prospect of a settlement – “Unfortunately we’re quite a distance apart…BC Transit wants to hide behind its contractors and the contractors made it clear they don’t see a route to closing the gaps and getting to a fair agreement, so we have no choice but to strike”.

The article concluded with some more practical information for locals. This included news that the transit operators picketed the Whistler Transit Yard on 29th January 2022 and a link for readers to receive updates regarding the strike.

Local Coverage During the Strike

Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News in their article ‘No end to 48-day transit strike in B.C.’s Sea-to-Sky region as talks break off’[42], published March 18th 2022, presented the issue of wage parity with drivers in Metro Vancouver as the main reason why talks broke off after two days. The article summarized a statement made by McGarrigle and noted that “progress was being made during two days of negotiations before they ended…talks broke off when the two private contractors bargaining on behalf of BC Transit rejected eventual wage parity with Metro Vancouver transit operators who make an average of $3 more an hour”. The piece, as was typical for other articles published in March[43], ended on a somber note with a mention of a recent Unifor statement saying that no future negotiating dates were scheduled.

The Comox Valley Record struck a similar tone in their May 12th 2022 article ‘Mediated talks collapse, strike continues in lengthy Sea-to-Sky transit dispute[44]. They reported how talks were looking hopeful in early May but the familiar concerns around achieving wage parity with Metro Vancouver bus drivers prevented a settlement. The article detailed how PW Transit rejected another day of mediation in the near future, meaning that no talks were scheduled to resolve the strike.

As May progressed, more articles like ‘Sea-to-Sky transit strike poised to break record[39] in The Squamish Chief began to be produced by local outlets. The article, published on May 25th, 2022, comments that “as of May 24, the Sea-to-Sky transit strike is roughly a week from setting the bar for the longest transit strike in B.C. history”. Despite this, the piece is hopeful of a resolution later in the month as it mentioned a new round of talks scheduled for May 27th, 2022. Bus cleaner Kris Hansen is interviewed and says, “It feel like it has to finish this time”.

Local Coverage of the End of the Strike

The Vancouver Sun, in an article titled ‘Sea to Sky bus drivers end strike after winning guaranteed inflation-based wage hike’[45] published on June 15, 2022, quoted directly from special mediator Vince Ready’s recommendations to the provincial government. Ready commented that “for both parties to recognize the need to bring this dispute to an end”. This article also points to quotes from Ready’s report which exhibited sympathy for the workers considering the growing cost-of-living crisis. Local coverage was consistent in bringing up Ready’s recognition of this as Vancouver and B.C.’s struggle with the cost-of-living crisis has been well documented. The Squamish Chief[46] described Ready’s intervention as a “last minute Hail Mary that ultimately saved the day”.

The details of the 2024 deal were included in nearly every local article covering the end of the strike. The Vancouver Sun[45] reported on the raw percentages, with the deal amounted to a 13.5 per cent pay hike over five years. The agreement to have an adjustment clause in the settlement that wages must be increased in relation to inflation was also reported on.

Other outlets, such as The Daily Hive Vancouver[47] considered the difficulties returning transit services face post-strike. They recognize that “although the strike has now ended, the prompt restart of BC Transit’s bus services in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton after such a prolonged downtime in operations is an entirely different matter.”

Most local news portrayed the outcomes of the negotiations as a victory for the union. The headline of the Vancouver Sun[45] article is ‘Sea to Sky bus drivers end strike after winning guaranteed inflation-based wage hike’. McGarrigle is quoted in The Daily Hive Vancouver’s[47] piece: “We were successful at closing an unacceptable wage inequality between workers in Vancouver and the Sea-to-Sky region”.  

Concluding Analysis of Local Media Coverage

Coverage of the strike from local newspapers and news magazines mostly took the form of factual and practical reports. The primary purpose of these reports was to inform residents in the affected regions about the consequences of the job action. Very few articles and news reports from local sources gave an opinionated view on the issues which, in the view of Unifor Local 114 members, warranted the strike. Instead, updates were provided on the negotiation process and the record-breaking nature of the strike.

Overall, local newspapers failed to account for the disputes around pay, pensions and benefits between Unifor Local 114 and BC Transit throughout January 2022 prior to the strike, despite transit workers operating without a formal contract since May of 2022. The lead up to the strike which saw the development of the issues between the company and the union was the most neglected part of the coverage by the local print media. This indicates that the media is either unwilling or finds it difficult to report on labour disputes until workers and unions engage in labour action.

During the industrial action, local coverage mostly focused on chronicling the negotiations between the two sides. Overwhelmingly, articles were published after negotiations had broken down at various points between March-May 2022. As the strike progressed into May, articles then began to question whether the action would break the record for the longest transit strike in British Columbia’s history with some harking back to the 123-day 2001 Vancouver bus strike[48]. Articles published at this point began to take a more community-based approach, increasingly featuring interviews with affected residents and striking workers.

The conclusion of the Sea-to-Sky transit strike was covered more vociferously by local newspapers and magazines than at any other point of the industrial action. Reports and articles heralded[49] the appointment of special mediator Vince Ready as a significant turning point in the negotiations between union and employer. The outcomes of the negotiation were overwhelmingly presented as a victory for Unifor 114 over BC Transit. This served to justify the longevity of the strike with many pieces including triumphant quotes from Gavin McGarrigle.

National Media Coverage

Photo taken in 2020 of an empty bus in North Vancouver with COVID-19 social distancing signage is run with a CP article published in The Toronto Star about the 2022 Sea-to-Sky transit strike. Speaks to the lack of concern for the strike by the newspaper. Photo by Jonathan Hayward[50]

The three largest newspapers in Canada, conservative leaning National Post, The Globe and Mail which is centrist and the liberal leaning Toronto Star were slow to include the strike in their publications and made no mention of its conclusion. In fact, despite their political differences, the coverage of the strike in the newspapers was nearly identical with each publishing four or in The Globe's case five short Canadian Press (CP) articles outlining the bargaining processes and mediation breakdowns.

The Globe[51] and The National Post[52] began their coverage on February 21st, just over three weeks into the strike, with the same CP piece entitled, "Bargaining to resume over contract for Sea-to-Sky transit workers: union." The Toronto Star, which has a long history of covering labour issues in Canada[53], did not include the strike in their paper until March 18th in a short CP piece called "No end to 48-day transit strike in B.C.’s Sea-to-Sky region as talks break off"[54]. This short CP piece was the second mention of the strike in The Globe and Mail.

These articles primarily focused on the progress and breakdowns of negotiations between Unifor Local 114 and PW Transit. The depth of information did not surpass short statements by the two parties and local perspectives were not included. All three publications ceased to include the strike in their newspapers after May 31st, when special mediator Vince Ready was appointed after a deal recommended by Unifor Local 114's bargaining committee was rejected by the union [55] [56] [57]. May 31st was the day Unifor Local 114 tied the Metro-Vancouver bus driver strike of 2001 as the longest transit strike in British Colombia's history[58] which went unmentioned in the final CP report published in the three major newspapers.

Overall, the local and historic significance of the strike was underplayed in Canada's three most widely circulated newspapers[59]. This contrasts with the previous record breaking strike in 2001, when bus drivers went on strike across the Metro Vancouver area for 123 days. Search results in the archival news database, Canadian Newsstream, show that the 2001 strike was mentioned in 20 articles by The Globe and Mail, 15 by The National Post, and 8 by The Toronto Star. All three newspapers included in depth reporting about the local impacts of the strike [60][61][62]. The same level of widespread national coverage was not evident for the Sea-to-Sky strike, despite it's disruptions to a major tourist destination that attracts approximately three million annual visitors[63].

More recently, between October and November 2019, labour disputes and strike threats by Metro-Vancouver transit workers were relatively well documented by the three papers, including a piece by The Star, reflecting on the potential climate impacts a narrowly avoided three-day strike could have had[64]. But the much longer Sea-to-sky labour action garnered no in-depth reflection from any national outlets. The national media appears more willing to cover and reflect on labour action and its effects in larger cities than in smaller communities, despite historic longevity and significant local impact. Local media, then, was effective in filling this coverage gap and was well positioned to recognize the significance of the strike to the Sea-to-Sky region and its communities.

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