As the school bus driver strike in the Outaouais reaches its fourth week, Teamsters local 106, the union representing the striking drivers and Sogesco, the company that owns Autobus Lasalle are set to return to the bargaining table. The bargaining process is now being undertaken under the supervision of a government-appointed conciliator, whose role is help the two sides reach a compromise.
The exact date of the resumption of negotiations is still to be determined.
According to a statement from Sogesco, both the union and employer requested government mediation through conciliation
“Autobus Lasalle and Bigras Transport (the two Outaouais transport companies owned by Sogesco) will continue to negotiate in a spirit of respect in order to reach agreements that will ensure a fair balance between the union’s demands and the companies’ ability to pay,” said the statement. “However, as presented, the union demands go far beyond the company’s financial capacity because of the contractual agreements in effect which greatly limit their manoeuvering room.”
In the statement, Sogesco blamed its inability to meet the demands of the union as stemming from the disparity between school contracts in different regions of Quebec which left the Outaouais underfunded.
“In the Outaouais region, differences in income of several thousand dollars mean that employers are unable to pay their employees equitably due to a lack of funding,” said the Sogesco statement.
This sentiment was echoed by Pontiac MNA André Fortin, who placed the blame on the government for the dispute.
“The government recognized back in August-September, when the national (province-wide) negotiation was taking place, that there would be further need for financial commitments on their end to make sure that the situation in the Outaouais and in the Eastern Townships was stabilized so that the bus companies could give proper salaries and working conditions to their employees,” Fortin said. “They had until March 31 to re-initiate talks with the companies but that has not been done. So while it’s a positive thing to have a mediator so the parties are in discussions, the government has a responsibility to fulfill its commitment here and to provide additional resources to our bus companies so that they can offer the level of salary and working conditions that our bus drivers expect.”
The local 106 negotiator Denis Ouellette confirmed that he also heard that school transport companies in the Outaoais received less money than in other regions, though added he didn’t know the reason for it or even whether this is the actual cause of the failure to resolve the dispute.
“So what they’re saying now is that we don’t have the money. And on the other hand, there is the government saying, ‘no, no, no, no, no, you got extra money from us.’ I think it was $130 million extra for all the school bus companies in the province of Quebec. So for sure, they’ve got extra money but they’re saying oh it’s not enough.”
Sogesco’s statement implied they are concentrating its efforts on getting more money from the provincial government before making a better offer to the union.
“Employers are calling on the ministère de l’Éducation to quickly review the conditions in the Outaouais region so that they can offer drivers their fair share,” the Segesco statement said. “After reviewing these contract conditions, Autobus Lasalle and Bigras Transport are confident that they will reach agreements to everyone’s satisfaction.”
Overall while Ouellette said the resumption of negotiations is positive, he’s still not optimistic that the strike will be resolved before the end of the school year.
“I hope that the employers are coming back to the bargaining table with a new offer, something that maybe the drivers would consider, but I doubt it,” Ouellette said, adding that the employer doesn’t seem to willing to offer anything beyond a 5 per cent increase, which is unacceptable.
He said the union remains open to compromise, but that in order to bring an offer back to the membership, the employer needs to offer something substantial, which they’ve so far not done.
“[$27 an hour] is what is being asked for by the drivers but we for sure won’t get that,” Ouellette said. “We don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, but there’s something in the middle there.”
Sogesco added in their most recent statement that they would make no further public comment “in order to respect the negotiation process.”
When asked if Fortin believed the government would enforce a solution on the parties if the negotiations don’t succeed he said:
“I expect two things before anybody reaches that point. First off, the government lives up to its commitment and put additional resources on the table. And second, that they also give alternate solutions to the students who are now missing their ministry exams. The ministry exam started this week, and some of the students are missing from school. Student success should never be put in jeopardy because of a bus driver strike.”
Pontiac May 22, 2023
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