British Columbia

Fraser Valley bus drivers strike over wages, pension and working conditions

More than 200 bus drivers in the Fraser Valley began a full-scale strike Monday, after negotiations between their union and employer First Transit broke down last week.

Essential HandyDart services still running in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission, Agassiz, Harrison and Hope

Transit workers in yellow reflective vests gather with picket signs outside of Abbotsford City Hall during a strike.
Fraser Valley Transit workers gather outside of Abbotsford City Hall during their job action in Abbotsford, B.C., on Feb. 27, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

More than 200 bus drivers in the Fraser Valley began a full-scale strike Monday, after negotiations between their union and employer First Transit broke down last week.

First Transit is contracted by B.C. Transit, and serves Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission, Agassiz, Harrison and Hope. HandyDart is operating at essential service levels in the region during the strike.

"Workers have been without a contract … since April 1, 2020," said Liam O'Neill, national representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), on CBC Radio's The Early Edition on Monday.

He said bus drivers are striking for fair wages, improved working conditions and a 32-per-cent pay increase, to bring them in line with what other drivers are paid elsewhere in Metro Vancouver's transit system.

"It's come to a point where we finally need to take a stand," O'Neill said.

First Transit told CBC in a statement last week that it "feels strongly that its offer balances the needs of all stakeholders in the Fraser Valley's transit system with our desire to ensure we are able to continue to attract and retain skilled and talented workers."

Picket lines were set up in Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Mission on Monday — communities that B.C. Transit says see roughly 13,000 boardings on weekdays. A picket line has also been set up at the Burnaby bus loop where the Fraser Valley Express bus from Chilliwack makes its final stop.

Commuters struggle to find alternatives

Many commuters forced to find transportation alternatives say they're scrambling.

Samidsha Benitan, an international student at the University of the Fraser Valley, says she will have to take an Uber every day, at nearly $15 a ride.

She hopes the strike ends soon. 

"Otherwise, it will be very tough for all the students, especially international students, because we need to go to work as well."

Aiden Krysciak, a university student who lives in Mission, says he will have to rely on getting rides from his friends.

"I think I'll be alright for the rest of the semester, but for afterwards, I don't know really how I'm going to get around," he said.

WATCH | Commuters talk about how they're coping:

Commuters, bus drivers frustrated over transit strike in B.C.'s Fraser Valley

3 months ago
Duration 1:37
Students, commuters and bus drivers share their frustrations on the first day of no bus service in B.C.'s Fraser Valley.

While HandyDart is operating for people who need it as an essential service to travel for cancer treatment or dialysis, others who depend on it are out of luck.

Gerene Herrewynen, who lives in Abbotsford and takes HandyDart most days to travel to her volunteer work, says she can't get very far now. 

"It kind of sucks for people who have to take the bus or don't have people that can drive them," she said.

Escalating tensions

The past 12 months have seen transit drivers in a number of areas — including the Sea-to-Sky region, West Vancouver and Kelowna — turn to strikes and job action, while union leaders have consistently said the need to deal with increasing costs of living is a major influence on workers' demands.

In the Fraser Valley, CUPE issued a strike notice on Jan. 30, after drivers had stopped collecting fares a few days earlier.

Buses were temporarily parked in late February and again last week when drivers stopped work for two and then three days, respectively, as part of their job action.

A group of workers holding picket signs stands in a snowy parking lot.
Fraser Valley Transit workers gather outside of Abbotsford City Hall on Feb. 27, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

CUPE representative O'Neill said Monday that union members on strike "understand the gravity of the situation" and the effect the service halt will have on the public. 

"Our members have been working with a substantially reduced income for years," O'Neill said. "What's happened over the years is that the employer has taken advantage of our members' desire not to impact the public, and so the result of that is where we're at now." 

O'Neill said the "fight" right now is with First Transit, and not B.C. Transit or the provincial government. 

A statement from B.C. Transit says it is watching the situation carefully and will update customers when more information is available.

With files from Adam van der Zwan, Liam Britten, the Canadian Press, and The Early Edition.