Central Okanagan transit drivers have shut down the bus service in the region for today but  the strike will only last one day as the two sides in the labour dispute head to binding arbitration.

with First Transit, the company that runs the system.

“I offered (First Transit) this binding arbitration on Aug. 29,” Al Peressini, president of Local 1722 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, told iNFOnews.ca today, Oct. 5.

“I sent an email and they replied, flatly: ‘No. Not interested.’ All of a sudden, last night, it was brought up again and they accepted it.”

The union started job action against First Transit — the company that runs the transit system in the Central Okanagan — in August by refusing to collect fares or work overtime.

It wasn’t until yesterday, on the eve of a full shutdown of the system, that the company agreed to talk to them again, after sending out a news release saying they had offered 9% wage hikes over three years.

READ MORE: Last minute negotiations not expected to avert Kelowna transit strike

The union said it had rejected that offer in August and there was nothing added to it by the time bargaining wrapped up at 10 p.m. yesterday, Peressini said.

Given the late hour, it was impossible to call drivers in for today’s shifts, which is why they are holding a one-day strike, he said.

“Our ultimate goal is to make Kelowna regional transit public,” Peressini said. “Take it out of the private sector.”

Wages are not the only issue.

There are about 110 full-time conventional transit drivers and 60 to 70 casual drivers.

Most transit systems do not have a casual pool and the Kelowna system is struggling to hire and retain casual drivers because of the shortage of hours, lack of benefits and shift change from day to night. That has resulted in about 50% of the newly trained drivers quitting on an ongoing basis, Peressini said.

The company has agreed to a union proposal to hire about a dozen drivers to work full-time to cover vacations and that should partially alleviate that problem, he said. But that’s just the start of his efforts to eliminate casuals altogether.

There are about two dozen full-time handyDART drivers and a handful of casual drivers who are paid about $5 less than conventional drivers.

The union is trying to get wage parity for those drivers as that's happening more and more across the county, Peressini said.

While they don’t have to drive the larger busses, “their job is way harder than conventional drivers,” he said, noting they have to help people with disabilities onto and off the vehicles.

The union also represents about 30 technicians, service and office workers so it has about 245 members altogether.

Peressini doesn’t know when the binding arbitration hearing will start since an arbitrator has to be agreed upon then dates booked.

In the meantime, the Central Okanagan transit system returns to normal tomorrow.

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