On Wednesday, the 80 members of the BC Government & Service Employees' Union (BCGEU) employed by Western Pacific Marine issued a 72-hour strike notice, making it all but certain that the Kootenay Lake ferry will be shut down to routine travel over the Labour Day long weekend.
The move comes after several months of unsuccessful negotiations for a new collective agreement that the ferry workers are hoping will address long-standing issues with substandard wages, benefits and training that have created a staffing crisis for the ferry service.
"Our members don't just work on these ferries, they live in ferry-reliant communities," says BCGEU president Stephanie Smith. "They know how important this service is to their friends, families and neighbours and they know what it's going to take to make it safe and sustainable for years to come. That's why they're fighting for a contract that prioritizes the recruitment and retention of highly-skilled staff in a highly competitive industry."
If the ferry workers and their employer can't reach an agreement before the 72-hour notice is up, the workers will conduct a 3-day strike beginning Saturday, August 31st at the Balfour Terminal of the Kootenay Lake Ferry. Under the terms of an essential services ruling issued by the Labour Relations Board, the Balfour ferry will be shut down to routine travel over the long weekend but will be available for emergencies and disaster response. The ferries serving the communities of Harrop and Glade, also operated by Western Pacific Marine, will remain 100 per cent operational.
Ferry workers and their supporters have spent the last few days talking to ferry users and other community members about their job action, including issuing notices warning of the possibility of a 3-day strike over the Labour Day long weekend.
"Our goal from the beginning of these negotiations has always been to get a collective agreement that these workers and ferry-reliant communities deserve," says Smith. "As the cost of living continues to rise employers should be doing everything they can to support services and preserve family-supporting jobs in B.C.'s small towns and rural areas, instead of prioritizing profit margins by suppressing wages, eroding benefits, and reducing funding for training, safety and career development."
Inland ferries were contracted out under the previous BC Liberal government. As operating costs have increased, Western Pacific Marine has not maintained adequate training, wages and staffing levels. As a result, the Kootenay Lake ferry has become heavily dependent on overtime, short-term hires from other regions and even contracting retired employees to maintain existing services. With this kind of instability, sailings are at risk of cancelation on a daily basis.
As per the Labour Relations Board ruling on essential services ferry crews on the picket line will be on standby to provide on-demand sailings of the Kootenay Lake ferry for emergency response and the ferries serving the communities of Harrop and Glade will remain 100 per cent operational. For full details on schedules and service levels of the inland ferries in the West Kootenays over the Labour Day weekend, visit ferries.bcgeu.ca
BCGEU members work on most of B.C.'s 13 inland ferry routes including Adams Lake, Arrow Park, Francois Lake, Glade, Harrop, Needles, Kootenay Lake and Upper Arrow Lake ferries.
The BCGEU is one of the largest unions in B.C. with over 79,000 members in almost every community and economic sector in the province.