A transit strike is looming in Kelowna as workers employed by a private company bristle at attempts to impose public-sector wage restraints on their next collective agreement.
"We know what we are. We know we're the cheaper alternative to government employees," said Les Milton, president of Amalgamated Transit Union local 1722, which represents 189 Kelowna bus drivers, clerical staff and maintenance workers. "We're willing to live with that. What we're not willing to live with is putting us into restraint, same as [government employees]"
Bus service in Kelowna is provided by First Canada ULC under a contract with B.C. Transit, the Crown corporation responsible for public transportation in British Columbia outside Greater Vancouver. B.C. Transit uses contractors to operate 80 of the 81 transit systems it oversees, with Victoria the lone exception.
The last collective agreement between the union and First Canada expired over a year ago, and workers are looking for pay increases of about 2 per cent a year for three years. The company has refused, citing the provincial government's net-zero mandate that seeks to hold the line on public-sector wages for two years.
"The company has said, well you're not government employees but you're bound by this government restraint, so we can't give you any money," said Mr. Milton.
While the net-zero mandate is not legally binding on First Canada, any pay increases would have to come out of its profits rather than be passed on to B.C. Transit.
"Last year, B.C. Transit determined that we could not provide additional funding to contracted operating companies for wage-rate increases unless there was a pre-existing collective agreement," said B.C. Transit spokeswoman Joanna Linsangan. "This decision was made because B.C. Transit is required to operate under the provincial government's net-zero mandate."
Mr. Milton said it is unfair to treat people who work for a contractor like public-sector employees. He added that transit workers in Kelowna make between $3 to $5 an hour less than their counterparts in Victoria and don't get anywhere near the same health and pension benefits.
"We're not even the poor cousins," he said.
His members also have very little job security. When First Canada's contract expires in 2014, B.C. Transit will issue a request for proposals. If a different company wins the bid, it will be under no obligation to retain the current employees at the same pay.
First Canada's last offer was for a three-year deal with no pay raises for two years and a "me-too" clause for the third year. Any wage increase would have been pegged to what Victoria transit workers employed directly by B.C. Transit are able to negotiate once the zero-mandate expires.
That deal was overwhelmingly rejected by union members in Kelowna, who voted 95 per cent against it. The two sides are slated to enter mediation at the end of the month.
"I'm not so optimistic," said Mr. Milton of the prospects that a mediator can broker a resolution.
First Canada's regional vice-president responsible for the Kelowna system, Alvin Zaharko, refused to comment on the negotiations.
If mediation fails, transit workers could go on strike in early May, idling a system that carried 4.3 million passengers last year.
It's a prospect that frustrates Kelowna Mayor Sharon Shepherd. Her city pays close to $4-million a year for transit services, while other communities in the region kick in $2-million. B.C. Transit provides $7.4-million and fares contribute about $5-million.
"It will be terrible if there's a strike. Pressure will be put on us to do something about it," said Ms. Shepherd, adding that despite their financial contributions, the municipalities have no say in what happens at the bargaining table and would be powerless to intervene in the event of a strike.
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