By Karen Ranalletta
For most public sector workers in this province, contract negotiations occur between their union and their B.C.-based, public sector agency employer representative. Strikes happen, but they seldom occur under progressive governments. However, when talks do break down over wages and benefits, there is always an avenue to return to the table. Why? Because it is in both parties’ interest to do so: while unions represent the workers who perform the service, most employers are accountable to the public they are entrusted to serve.
Sadly, bargaining is a much different story for workers like the 213 members of CUPE 561 employed by First Transit in the Fraser Valley. They’ve been on picket lines since March 20.
First Transit is a U.S.-based private company owned by Transdev, a global corporation based in France that operates in 18 countries and, in 2020, raked in 7.4 billion Euros in revenue. Given the company’s wealth, it can easily afford a collective agreement that pays its employees the same wages as other transit workers in the region while providing a pension, which would allow them to retire with dignity. But the company refuses to respect its own workers.
This contracted-out transit operator pays CUPE 561 First Transit workers much less than other workers earn at neighbouring transit systems that are publicly owned and operated, such as BC Transit, TransLink, and Coast Mountain Bus Company. (The new deal between CMBC and Unifor gives those workers wage increases through April 1, 2025 that will put CUPE 561 drivers even further behind: based on First Transit’s last offer, they’ll go from being $5.74 an hour behind CMBC drivers in 2019 to $8.16 an hour behind them by next April.)
CUPE 561 served strike notice at the end of January and officially began their job action on February 2. In order to exhaust every possibility before a complete withdrawal of services, giving the company the opportunity to return to the table with a reasonable offer, the strike began with drivers refusing to collect fares. This action was followed by two brief service disruptions before the total shutdown began on March 20.
The longest transit strike in B.C. history, last year in the Sea-to-Sky region, lasted four months. This one could potentially last much longer. Clearly there is no incentive for First Transit, whose primary obligations are to its parent company and overseas shareholders, to come back to the table with a reasonable offer. Companies like First Transit exist to maximize profits, not to pay workers fairly. Nor to answer to the public.
With no connection to the Fraser Valley communities where its buses operate, why should First Transit’s head office care about the people with disabilities who have been homebound during the strike? Or the elderly who have missed their doctor’s appointments? Or the students who have gone even further into debt because of all those Uber trips just to get to their exams? No, First Transit enjoys the luxury of hiding from the public and counting its profits while its employees stand outside on picket lines, fighting for fairness.
Given that First Transit is neither meaningfully impacted by nor publicly accountable for this labour dispute, the only solution is for BC Transit to step in.
Ironically, while the workers wear First Transit uniforms, the buses they drive all bear the BC Transit logo and branding, as do the buildings where they report to work. And their employer continues to be paid by BC Transit under their contract for services. But despite the deep connection between BC Transit and First Transit, these workers do not receive BC Transit wages and they do not have a BC Transit pension. Nor any pension.
Let’s be clear: BC Transit bears responsibility for this strike because of its obligation to provide transit services in the Fraser Valley. BC Transit bears the burden of resolving the impasse and getting buses back on the road. However, BC Transit not only refuses to get involved in bargaining; they have also refused to even sit down and talk with CUPE.
By now, the Crown corporation should be worried not just about its branding, but also the long-term impact this dispute is having on public transportation in the Fraser Valley—the very infrastructure and service they are responsible for providing.
Clearly it’s time for some creative problem-solving by the people best positioned to end this strike. Fraser Valley residents, and our CUPE 561 members, deserve nothing less.
But first, BC Transit needs to get its head out of the sand.