B.C. Transit strike forces multiple run cancellations

Unionized drivers halt all overtime work in response to breakdown of contract talks

Transit commuters got their first taste of a partial transit drivers’ strike Monday, which cancelled 19 runs on five bus routes.

Bus drivers have indefinitely halted all overtime work in response to a breakdown of contract negotiations between B.C. Transit and Canadian Auto Workers’ local 333 Thursday night.

University of Victoria students bore a significant portion of the service disruption. Ten of the affected runs were either going to or leaving from the university.

“It puts students in a tough position,” said Lucia Orser, director of external relations for the University of Victoria Students’ Society.

Students are already being passed over at the bus stops in the morning due to buses hitting their maximum capacity limits. The work-to-rule action will only make the problem worse, Orser said.

“It could mean missed classes,” she said. “But at the same time we support (the drivers’) rights for ongoing job action.”

The contract dispute centres around a proposal to replace the current fleet of community shuttle buses with a new fleet of five slightly larger shuttle buses made in China.

Community shuttles are used on smaller routes, such as through James Bay and on the West Shore. Community shuttle drivers require less training and are paid $5 less an hour. Conventional buses require a class 2 licence, while smaller community shuttles require a class 4 licence.

The union has two main concerns surrounding the proposed new shuttle, called the Vicinity. First, the proposed new shuttles can hold up to 39 passengers (including 16 standing passengers) compared to the current shuttle, which can hold 23 sitting passengers and no standing passengers. The union argues drivers of the new, larger shuttles should have the same training and pay as drivers of conventional buses.

“No one other than a full-time conventional operator with a Class 2 license has ever operated a bus in the Victoria system with a capacity of more than 24 passengers,” said union president Ben Williams.

He said B.C. Transit insisted on the unrestricted right to use the shuttle buses for the Victoria fleet.

B.C. Transit spokesperson Meribeth Burton said union fears are unfounded, and that the number of community shuttles won’t increase and they won’t be used on larger, busier routes.

The union’s second concern surrounds the sourcing of the shuttles. It alleges B.C. Transit selected the shuttles by direct award contract. It has called on the Auditor General of B.C. to conduct an independent review of the decision not to issue a request for proposals for new buses.

Burton said B.C. Transit has been testing the shuttles for two years.

“We think it offers better comfort and safety for our customers and drivers,” she said.

The Greater Victoria Transit Commission has not yet approved the purchase of these new shuttles for Greater Victoria. B.C. Transit has purchased the shuttles for several jurisdictions in other communities of B.C.

By press time Monday, there were no plans to resume negotiation talks.

For updates on cancelled runs, check transitbc.com, under ‘Customer Alerts.’

rholmen@vicnews.com