Central Okanagan, B.C., residents can expect public transit services to be back Thursday morning, thanks to a last-minute agreement between the bus drivers' union and the transit company that has halted the prospect of a full-scale strike.
Scott Lovell, financial secretary of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1722, which represents Kelowna Regional Transit operators, office staff and maintenance personnel, said Wednesday morning the union had agreed to binding arbitration with system operator First Canada ULC.
Under the arrangement, the union has cancelled plans for a full-scale strike on Wednesday. But even with an end to the work stoppage, no public bus service will be available Wednesday except HandyDART, which is deemed an essential service.
Lovell said First Canada notified the union Tuesday evening that it is willing to engage in binding arbitration with the union to resolve outstanding issues.
'No need for the middleman,' says union
One of the outstanding issues is the union's demand to return the right to operate Kelowna public transportation to B.C. Transit, a provincial Crown corporation that co-ordinates public transit services across most of the province, outside Metro Vancouver.
However, it will not be part of the binding arbitration agreed to by the company and the union.
"There's no need for the middleman," Lovell told host Chris Walker on CBC's Daybreak South.
Binding arbitration is a hearing before an arbitrator acceptable to both parties in a labour dispute.
Dozens of bus drivers had gathered at the B.C. Transit yard on Hardy Road Wednesday morning for the union's news conference, which was originally planned as an event to mark the beginning of the work stoppage.
Job action since early September
ATU Local 1722's strike was approved by 97 per cent of its members in late August after the union and the bus company were unable to reach an agreement on a compensation package. The previous contract expired in March.
Bus drivers escalated their job action at the beginning of September, refusing to wear company uniforms, collect fares, or work overtime.
Jatinder Brar, who has worked as a bus driver in Metro Vancouver before moving to Kelowna Regional Transit, says public transit operators don't enjoy the competitive salaries and pension plans that drivers in other regions do, and he's hoping B.C. Transit will eventually take over the Okanagan transit system.
"We have full confidence in our bargaining committee and executives we voted for unanimously," Brar said. "We appreciate the entire public and those who stand with us during these tough times."
The Kelowna transit system consists of 29 bus routes serving residents across most of the Okanagan, including Kelowna, West Kelowna, the Westbank First Nation, Lake Country, Vernon, Peachland and Penticton. The service says it provides almost six million rides each year.