A strike could be looming for ferry services in the West Kootenay.
Unionized workers operating the Kootenay Lake, Harrop, and Glade ferries voted unanimously this summer to take job action to pressure their employer for a new contract.
Members of the BC Government and Service Employees Union Local 2009 could be off the job as early as the last week in August if they can’t settle with Kootenay Lake Ferries, part of the Western Pacific Marine company.
“We want to protect some of the services the Kootenay relies on,” says Paul Finch, the treasurer of the BCGEU. “And basically we’re looking at trying to get a fair deal for members in this contract. It’s a lot of people who are local, have local knowledge, and have good, family-supporting jobs in the community.”
The 80 union members’ last five-year contract expired in March.
The workers are seeking improvements to wages, working conditions, and “to address serious issues of training, retention and recruitment of qualified marine professionals,” the union says.
With the strike vote completed, workers can give 72-hours notice before walking off the job. However, neither side expects any job action until after a ruling from the Labour Relations Board on what essential services should be provided if there’s a strike.
What service to provide?
The question of essential services has heated up in the last few weeks.
Two of the ferries are the only way in and out of their communities — Glade and Harrop. The latter ferry also serves Sunshine Bay and Procter on the south shore of Kootenay Lake.
A lawyer for Kootenay Lake Ferries, Melanie Vipond, has reached out to the affected communities, asking them to tell their stories about the ferry means to them. Social media sites have been filled with responses.
“What we said to the union is, you just can’t do this to the community,” Vipond told the Castlegar News. “This community cannot withstand even a small reduction in the level of services. They rely on the ferry to meet their everyday needs, attend doctors’ appointments, emergencies, commute to work, groceries, you name it.”
Vipond says so far the union has offered to provide once-an-hour service to Glade and the other ferries. Vipond says she doesn’t think locals would be properly served by that.
“This amounts to almost a 90-per-cent reduction in services. It would create a huge backlog of cars, it’s just not feasible,” she says, noting the employer wants no change in service during the dispute.
“We’re saying essentially the ferry is a highway, and you can’t just shut down a highway during a strike. It’s not fair, it’s putting too much on third parties.”
But the BCGEU’s Finch says the employer is taking it too far.
“The definition of essential services is protection of life and limb. So we strongly believe that when it comes to essential services, it really is a matter of life and limb, and the effect of a strike if it does go forward is that service could be curtailed or reduced in all the locations. We do think essential service levels would allow for some uses, but it would definitely be curtailed or reduced.”
“It’s really hard to speculate before the hearing,” he said.
The B.C. Labour Relations Board will hold a hearing on the issue on Aug. 21-23. It’s likely the board would rule on the “essential” nature of each of the region’s ferries individually, setting the service level to be maintained.
The Arrow Lakes ferries are part of a separate contract and unaffected.