Potential bus strike remains uncertian, students concerned

    Fredericton Transit workers and the city talked for two hours last Tuesday about the proposed contract, but couldn’t reach a settlement.

    As of Sunday afternoon, Ralph McBride, CUPE’s national representative for the Maritimes, couldn’t say when the union might go on strike but said they can do so with 24 hours’ notice.

    Nathalie Sturgeon is a student who relies heavily on the bus system. With no drivers’ licence, it’s her only method of transportation.

    “It causes me a lot of anxiety to think about how I might get to work. I need to work in order to pay for school, and food,” said Sturgeon. “I rely on the buses for my diabetic appointments and getting my medication. Without [the bus], that’s going to be impossible.”

    The St. Thomas University’s Student Union president Megan Thomson said they have several ideas for alternative sources of transportation in the works.

    “We learn new details of our plan every day,” she said.

    Students are encouraged to walk a little further than they usually would. Those doing so can tag STUSU on social media and use the hashtag “babyitscoldoutside.” These posts will serve as entries into a prize draw.

    “Any day is a beautiful day if you’re dressed appropriately,” said Thomson.

    A “STU Rides” Facebook page is ready to go in the event of a strike. Participants can use this page to ask for or offer drives to and from campus. Drivers will be reimbursed 30 cents per kilometre, which is “far more than the price of gas,” said Thomson.

    The student union is also talking with cab companies to offer free rides to and from campus, but this would not be a long term solution. Thomson stresses this is for students who “genuinely do not have another method of transportation” and will not be put in place until a strike happens.

    “The fewer students who take advantage of this, the longer we can run it,” she said.

    As students cannot opt out of the $85 annual fee for a bus pass, Thomson said they are talking with the city about a possible rebate if there is a prolonged strike.

    Fredericton Transit has always been paid less than Moncton and Saint John, but the wage gap has grown in the past few contracts.

    In addition to the wage gap between cities, much of the controversy comes from the wage and benefits gap between operator one and operator two drivers (sometimes called OP I and OP II). Operator two drivers are technically part-time workers, but work full-time hours. The only difference is they are not guaranteed these hours whereas operator one drivers are. Operator two drivers are paid $16 per hour when they start and don’t receive their full rate until after two years of probation. Even still, they are only paid 94 per cent of operator one drivers for virtually identical work.

    McBride said if the contract goes through, the gap will widen. “By the end of this contract, OP II will be paid less than 90 per cent [of OP I].”

    What CUPE is most concerned about is the benefits spending allowance. While operator one drivers would be getting a $25 increase, from $175 to $200 biweekly, operator two drivers are not getting an increase and will only be getting $125 biweekly.

    “That doesn’t even cover the expense of the benefits spending health and dental plan,” said McBride. “They have to pay out of pocket. They’re not making 100 per cent of the wage, then they have to turn around and pay out of pocket.”

    McBride wants equal pay for operator two drivers and improvements to all worker’s health care benefits.

    Mayor Brad Woodside said in a statement last Sunday, “I am disappointed to learn that our transit union has voted not to accept the contract offer made by the City of Fredericton.” He continued to say the offer will not increase and they feel it is a fair and reasonable offer.

    “Fredericton is a small city that relies largely on the transit system, and for that to fail us is awful. Both sides need to come to a speedy conclusion, said Sturgeon. “In the mean time I guess, those of us who rely on the bus service can just live in transportation limbo.”