Most Francois Lake ferry staff vote to strike

The union representing workers with the MV Francois Forester ferry have voted overwhelmingly to strike amid an impasse in negotiations with the employer WaterBridge.

The vote among workers of the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) came out to 78 per cent in favour of striking, as Stephanie Smith, BCGEU President told Lakes District News on Aug. 22.

There are 80 staff, including auxiliaries with the BCGEU who work for the ferry service.

Negotiations with WaterBridge have been ongoing since the workers’ contracts expired at the end of March.

But the talks reached an impasse over several issues, Smith said.

“Our goal is to get a collective agreement. Currently the proposals are pretty far apart. Since the ferries were contracted out by the previous Liberal government there has been a lack of investment in the labour force. These are specialized positions that require training. There hasn’t been investment in training for the current staff to allow for career ladders to other positions. There’s a lack of competitive wages. It’s hard to draw the necessary staff. The staffing levels of these inland ferries are reaching a crisis point,” she explained.

Though workers’ support for a strike is high, Smith said both the union and WaterBridge are speaking with the Labour Relations Board (LRB) about the essential services levels of the ferry.

Under the B.C. Labour Relations Code, “employers and unions [must] maintain certain essential services to the public when they take job action in a labour dispute. Essential services are those related to the health, safety or the welfare of British Columbia residents,” according to the LRB.

“A strike is a tool in a toolbox to achieve a collective agreement but it’s a tool of last resort. We’ve already committed that in any community where the ferry is the only means of entering or exiting the community, we’ll still provide service,” Smith said. “The levels will be determined by Aug. 23. We’ll respect those levels should job action take place. If there’s job action we’ll have crews on standby should there be an emergency requiring transportation for community members.”

In case there is a strike, it can only happen when ferry trips aren’t necessary under the essential services ruling, said WaterBridge Steel president John Harding.

“It might impact some trips. We’re asking for full service to be maintained. In the meantime full service will be maintained until the ruling from the labour board comes down. So there won’t be any strike action before then,” Harding said.

“We’re hopeful we’ll get a good ruling from the labour board that will enable full service to continue. We’re really hopeful we can negotiate an end to the impasse and sign a contract.”

WaterBridge Equipment, the sister company of WaterBridge Steel operates the MV Francois Forester ferry, which transports hundreds of people and their vehicles across Francois Lake daily.

Blair McBride
Multimedia reporter
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