Workers of Western Pacific Marine have chosen to refrain from working overtime on Kootenay Lake to highlight the chronic staffing issues that have led to an unsustainable inland ferry service and to pressure the employer to return to the bargaining table and agree to a fair contract that invests in recruitment, retention and succession planning of ferry workers.
1. WHY IS A RESTRICTION ON OVERTIME CAUSING SAILING CANCELLATIONS?
A: There are not enough local, qualified employees to meet Transport Canada safe sailing requirements for each scheduled sailing. In fact, every day since June 2019, the employer has relied on overtime by the few local employees, favours from retirees, and flying in out-of-town temporary hires to meet service levels on Kootenay Lake.
When any of these workers get sick, injured, or delayed – which happens due to frequent long hours, reliance on flight status, and life in general – they are unable to get to the ferry for the scheduled sailing. And without adequate crews, ferries cannot sail.
2. AREN’T THE FERRY WORKERS FORCING CANCELLATIONS BY NOT WORKING OVERTIME?
A: Workers are at a breaking point from the amount of overtime we have been working over the last five years. We can’t sustain our lives working this much, especially with the subpar compensation we receive. We are also aging out and there are no workers being invested in to replace us. We can’t keep “coming back” from retirement forever. And using temporary hires from Nanaimo should be the exception, not the rule, for a sustainable service.
The employer needs to hire more of us, retain us with on-par wages and benefits, and train us to meet the qualifications needed by Transport Canada to meet the sailing needs of the community. We are acting on our exhaustion. And we are standing up for the needs of the ferry-dependent community.
3. BUT JOB ACTION AFFECTS THE COMMUNITY. WHY DO IT?
A: We know job action deeply affects the community. We know because we and our families rely on the ferries, too. We don’t want to shut them down.
Taking job action is a difficult decision to make, and was a last resort after months of attempts at negotiation with the employer. We have been without a collective agreement since March, and we need to get back to the bargaining table. We need the employer to address our concerns and consider our proposal. Job action is the only leverage we have to save our service, and it can only be successful with the community’s support.
4. WHAT DO WORKERS SUGGEST THAT THE COMMUNITY DO ABOUT THE SITUATION?
A: We suggest two actions.
Call or write your MLA or the Minister of Transportation and tell them how impacted you are by the inland ferries staffing crisis and that you want them to re-consider their contract with the current employer.
Call or write the employer and tell them to start providing consistent, reliable service by investing in sustainable staffing practices.
5. CAN’T GOVERNMENT DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE SITUATION?
A: Because the government is a third party in the labour dispute, they cannot intervene. However, they could choose to cancel contracts and bring the service back under their management. They could also choose to open up discussion with the employers to increase the service fee to allow for more wages, benefits and training. But they won’t take any action unless their constituents direct them to do so. That’s why it’s important for the community to voice these concerns to government.
6. WHAT WILL MOTIVATE THE EMPLOYER TO CHANGE?
A: At this point, job action doesn’t directly pressure them back to the negotiation table, nor does it influence them to invest in retention and succession planning. Until their contract with the Ministry is threatened, or the labour pools they’ve relied on stop agreeing to work for them, they will not be motivated to do anything different.
7. WE NEED TO PLAN OUR LIVES. WHY CAN'T THE UNION GIVE FERRY USERS MORE NOTICE OF CANCELLATIONS?
A: We aim to notify ferry users and ferry-dependent communities via ferries.bcgeu.ca as soon as we are confident that we will not have sufficient staffing to meet Transport Canada safe sailing requirements.
Given the chronic shortage in staffing, any absence (such as illness, injury, commute delays, etc.) requires overtime to operate a scheduled sailing. Sometimes we are not made aware of these human variables until hours before a sailing. Furthermore, as per the nature of ferry operations in Canada, no sailing is guaranteed until adequate staff are on the vessel.
Anytime we can staff the vessel without overtime, it will be in full operation. Please monitor ferries.bcgeu.ca and drivebc.ca for sailing status updates.
8. HOW HAS THE SERVICE BECOME UNSUSTAINABLE?
A: The inland ferry services were contracted out under the previous BC Liberal government. As operating costs have increased, the employers have been padding their profit margins rather than investing in retention, training and succession planning. As a result, there are not enough local, qualified employees to meet Transport Canada safe sailing requirements on all sailings needed by the community.
Also, when privatization began, contract between government and the ferry employers failed to include mandatory guidelines around successorship and training. These guidelines are essential to ensuring a sustainable supply of qualified employees. We raised this with government and they assured us they would include these guidelines in the August 2018 contract. But they did not. As a result, the employer is free to do away with trainings and succession plans, which is exactly what they have done, and instead directing funds to their profit margin instead.
To keep working in the community which they call home, employees are expected to not only fund their own training but take time off to do so, putting them at real risk of seniority loss or even termination. Given the years of training needed to be a marine professional, this lack of investment by the employer sends the message to employees that they are not valued. Many employees struggle with the decision to stay or move away.
Furthermore, as vessels are upgraded, the technology changes and the job of the ferry workers changes, too. Without training, workers cannot operate the ferries, and the ferries cannot run. Failure of the employer to fulfill their responsibility of training has put the ferries at risk of not running.
Finally, succession planning: There is nuanced local knowledge held by experienced employees about how to safely navigate Kootenay Lake. Without a succession plan or training set up by the employer, that local knowledge is not passed down to upcoming employees, and the service, vessels and area suffer.
9. HOW WILL THE WORKERS' REQUESTS FOR WAGES AND TRAINING SAVE OUR SERVICE?
A: If our request is fulfilled by the employer, the community will have an adequate number of local ferry workers available to staff the number of sailings needed consistently and reliably. Adequate wages and benefits will retain employees locally, training will ensure there is adequate numbers of employees available now, and succession planning will ensure local knowledge is passed down and there is sufficient back fill as employees retire.
10. WESTERN PACIFIC MARINE SAYS THEIR HANDS ARE TIED FINANCIALLY. THEY SAY THE CONTRACT FEE THEY GET FROM THE MINISTRY LIMITS WAGE INCREASES. WHY DO WORKERS THINK THEY CAN GET WHAT THEY'RE REQUESTING?
A: It is true that the contracts between the Ministry of Transportation and the employers build in an amount for wage increases to the service fee. However, the contract does not restrict the employer from allocating more than this amount to wages and benefits, or to training – see local MLA and Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Michelle Mungall’s statement here about this fact (fourth bullet). In other words, the employer is allowed to redirect funds from their profit margins to their employees.
And they can afford to do this. The profitability of their companies is significant. They regularly fly in out-of-town temporary hires to ensure ferries can sail, which is expensive. Between 2003 and 2019, the operating contract has increased from $3.78 million to $9.1 million. Wages and investment in training have not matched this rate. The employer can choose to do different than what they’ve been doing, to provide a sustainable service to the community.
11. WHY DOES WPM NOT RECRUIT OR RETAIN THE NECESSARY WORKERS?
A: Engineers and officers require significant experience and qualifications, which takes time and funding to get. These roles are also in high demand around the world, and are offered more compensation than WPM is offering.
It’s true that the employer has provided limited training in the past to up-and-coming engineers and officers. What the employer has failed to do is provide adequate compensation or a respectful workplace to retain the trained employees. In response, the employer has chosen to train to the bare minimum standard or not at all and use out-of-town temporary hires who are more expensive than locals and more vulnerable to commute delays. Currently there are many local workers willing to be trained and grow their careers in the community.
12. WHY HAVE NEGOTIATIONS CEASED BETWEEN THE UNION AND WESTERN PACIFIC MARINE (WPM)?
A: Negotiations have ceased at this time because the employer, Western Pacific Marine, claims they are restricted by their contract with the Ministry of Transportation to address our proposals.
The employer and the Ministry of Transportation share the responsibility of funding the inland ferry service to maintain service levels.
Our last attempt at negotiation with WPM was June 5, 2019. At that time, WPM asked if we were interested in mediation. We agreed to mediation if our financial requests would be considered. But the employer maintained their stance.
We don’t just need the employer to consider our proposal for industry standard wages. We need them to consider their options to make it happen.
13. CAN I APPLY FOR PRIORITY BOARDING?
A: The employer is responsible for screening vehicles and passengers for priority boarding. To confirm whether you qualify for priority boarding, please contact the employer, Western Pacific Marine: 250-229-5650.
For your reference, the Labour Relations Board limits priority boarding to the following people:
- Persons crossing for medical treatments/appointments or in-person pharmacy requirement for filling prescription;
- Personnel necessary for the continued operation of medical service at the East Shore Community Health Centre;
- Students (up to and including Grade 12 students) crossing to attend classes at public or private school;
- Parents or guardians of students crossing for the purpose of dropping off or picking up students attending classes (excluding non-classroom or extracurricular school activities) at public or private school; and
- Personnel (including principal/vice-principal) who are necessary for the operation of classes (excluding non-classroom or extracurricular student activities) at public or private schools.
14. WE HEAR THAT THE OSPREY WILL BE OUT OF SERVICE OCTOBER 15 TO NOVEMBER 4 FOR A SEMI-ANNUAL REFIT. IS THIS TRUE? HOW WILL THIS AFFECT THE SCHEDULE?
A: We have heard from the employer that the refit has been postponed until further notice. When the employer does perform a vessel refit, an alternative vessel is used to continue service. No cancellations are anticipated as a result of refit work.
15: IS THE EMPLOYER PENALIZED FOR MISSING SAILINGS? WHAT ELSE COULD INCENTIVIZE WPM BACK TO THE TABLE?
A: The employer is penalized for missed sailings. However, to date, WPM has chosen to pay the penalties rather than return to the bargaining table.
We are taking every action within our means to encourage the employer back to negotiations. The only remaining action we have is a strike. We don’t want to strike, but it may be necessary to get the employer to resume talks.
16. IS IT TRUE THAT THE UNION IS SEEKING A 43% INCREASE TO ANNUAL WAGES AND BENEFITS FOR ITS MEMBERS?
A: This is incorrect. Inland ferry workers are asking for parity with BC Ferries workers’ wages for identical positions on identical vessels in order to help make the inland ferry system a desirable job choice for highly qualified marine professionals.
For many positions, parity will be achieved within the 2% annual wage increase that is “built in” to the employer’s contract with the Ministry of Transportation.
For a few positions—especially those that require extensive training, are legally required for the vessels to sail, and are highly competitive in the broader marine industry—parity with BC Ferries will require wage increases beyond what has already been offered.
The amounts vary by position but in every case the increase is necessary in order to be able to recruit and retain the qualified staff needed to make the inland ferry system, and the communities that rely on it, sustainable for the future.