Off the Bus

The Strange Case of Marwan Marwan and the Coast Mountain Bus Company


by Tom Sandborn

     A recently fired local bus driver thinks he lost his job because he spoke out about health and safety concerns at work and about what he saw as racist and provocative images posted at his workplace by transit police. His off-work role as an anti-war and anti- racism activist may have been factors as well.  His former employer, the Coast Mountain Bus Company, is refusing to comment on details of the case, saying it is currently being grieved by his union.
     Marwan Marwan is a slight, soft spoken Lebanese immigrant who drove bus for the Coast Mountain Bus Company from September 2004 until March of this year. (According to its website, “Coast Mountain Bus Company was created on April 1, 1999. It was formerly known as BC Transit.  CMBC is an operating subsidiary of TransLink, the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority.” Coast Mountain’s 5,200 employees (3649 of whom are drivers) deliver transit services over an area of 1,800 square kilometers from Deep Cove to White Rock and Maple Ridge to Point Gray.)  
     On March 8 Marwan was called into management offices at the company’s Port Coquitlam depot and told he was being fired for “time theft,” (filing time sheets that the company claimed included unnecessary overtime claims.) Marwan believes that he was fired because he had objected to window displays in the depot’s transit police office that he saw as discriminatory and provocative.
     According to Marwan  “It was at least 50cm in diameter, but definitely bigger. It was a stitched patch, similar to a badge but extremely oversized. It had the twin towers in the background with a very aggressive and militaristic screaming eagle in the forefront with the words "United We Stand". The patch was displayed in the window of the police office and visible to everyone in the depot,”
     He says another reason the company might want to get rid of him was that he had reported what he believed were health and safety concerns about the natural gas buses that make up part of the Coast Mountain fleet.
     The manager of the Port Coquitlam depot, Tracey Lang, did not respond to requests for comment on Marwan’s claims, and Mike Laverty, Senior Labour Relations Advisor for Coast Mountain, declined comment, saying in a July 23 email that “…this matter is currently in the grievance process, and it would inappropriate for me to comment at this time.” However, Laverty did refer  me to Norm Fraser, media spokesman for Coast Mountain, who answered some general questions about company policy.
     Marwan said he spoke to the press and is pursuing a grievance through his union because he is innocent of the time theft charges and wants to prove it.
     “I accept that my job is gone for now,” the father of three whose wife is expecting a fourth child in November. “I just hope the grievance will allow other drivers to be better prepared and protected.”
     CAW (Canadian Auto Workers property representative Martin Fisher, who is handling a grievance Marwan has filed through the union to protest his termination, explained in a phone interview that “…we believe the brother was fired erroneously,”  but said he was unable to comment on the details of his meetings with Coast Mountain management about the case.
     Jim Houlahan is a vice president of Marwan’s union, and like Fisher he declined to comment on details of the ongoing dispute. He did say, however, that CAW did not believe Marwan’s termination was for just cause. He indicated the union was hopeful and confident that it would be possible to resolve the grievance and restore the driver to his job.
     One of Marwan’s co-workers isn’t reluctant to comment. She believed he had lost his job because of his political activism outside the job and his militant insistence on protecting his own and other driver’s rights under their union contract.
     Kris Scott, who is a work place representative at the Port Coquitlam depot for CAW local 111, considers that “I wonder if the issue they have with Marwan isn’t in part about his political views about the Middle East.” She said Marwan had been very effective defending his own and other drivers’ rights under their union contract, citing his protests against unsafe work conditions and management defined  schedules for completing certain routes which many drivers see as  unrealistically demanding
     Scott said she had encouraged Marwan, who she describes as “a good man,” to scrupulously record all his minutes of overtime worked, in part to document what she and he agree is unrealistic scheduling imposed on Coast Mountain drivers.
     Marwan said that the disputed overtime claims involve some but not all of approximately 400 minutes booked over six months, all claimed since he transferred to the Port Coquitlam depot in 2008. “To this day, we (the union and I) still don't know what is accepted and what isn't accepted by the company.”
     During all the time he drove out of the Vancouver depot, Marwan said his work record was unblemished and none of the overtime claims he made there were disputed by management. At least one of the overtime claims being disputed by Coast Mountain, he said, resulted from him taking time to help a disabled woman load with her wheelchair.
     One retired Lower Mainland bus driver pointed out that disputes about management- created schedules and their associated “timing points,” ( specific bus stops on a route that must be cleared at defined times) have a long and unhappy history in the local  transit system. Julius Fisher (no relation to the CAW’s Martin Fisher) drove bus for 16 years for BC Transit, the body replaced by Coast Mountain. He says that schedules and timing points were problematic for his entire time with the transit system.
     “Timing points were a constant issue when I was driving,” he said in a recent phone interview. “In recent years drivers I know have told me this continues to be a problem. I have always maintained that this will only be resolved when drivers have more input into defining schedules. Then maybe bus drivers will get what every other worker in BC is guaranteed by law- regular breaks during their shifts.”  
     In an e-mail, Coast Mountain media spokesman Norm Fraser writes that:
“CMBC expects transit operators to complete their runs and trips in as safe a manner as possible, as safety is the top priority. All routes have time ‘built-in’ to their individual schedules to allow a recovery period if the bus and schedule get out of sync for whatever reason i.e. road blockages, construction re-routes, etc. There are mechanisms/ systems and people in place to monitor this and suggest modifications and updates when and where, if needed.”
     One of Marwan Marwan’s co-workers sees the role of company timing expectations differently than the company media spokesperson does.
     “Drivers at this depot are pushed to the max,” says the CAW’s Scott. “The company schedule allows 15-30 seconds for loading and unloading at every stop, even if we have disabled passengers or mothers with strollers who need help and time getting on and off the bus.”
     Describing the labour relations atmosphere at the Port Coquitlam depot as “unbelievably tense,” Scott said that one driver at the depot had done an independent study of the scheduling on a local route, and concluded that in order to hit the company time lines, a driver would have to average 107 kilometers an hour on streets and roads with speed limits much lower than that.
     CAW VP Houlahan agrees that labour relations at the Port Coquitlam depot are tense, calling the tone there “sometimes bitter.” He also confirmed what Marwan and Scott say about the problems created by unrealistic schedules for drivers.
     “Scheduling is still a problem,” he said. “This is an ongoing struggle at all our properties. There simply aren’t enough buses on the road to deliver the scheduled service.”
     About a month and a half before March of this year, when Marwan Marwan lost his job, Scott warned him that she had heard “under the table” that Coast Mountain management had Marwan “in their sights,” and might be looking for opportunities to discipline him.
     Marwan protested the 9/11 linked poster in part because of a series of what he saw as racist incidents involving Coast Mountain staff and passengers. In one 2008 incident, he said, an off duty driver, member of a visible minority, was challenged when he tried to use his company issued bus pass by a driver who said, “I know what you people do with these bus passes.” In another a passenger perceived to be Muslim was attacked onboard a Coast Mountain vehicle by another passenger, who hurled racist epithets. Marwan told me that after he had protested the transit police poster, a company supervisor posted a comment on Marwan’s Facebook page attacking him for what the supervisor called an “un-Canadian” logo.
     (Given the possible implications of the Facebook page incident and the dispute about the 9/11 badge/poster, which could arguably be seen as harassment of those who work at the depot  who are visible minorities or do not support the War on Terror,  we should be curious about whether Coast Mountain Bus has a policy on harassment. Apparently the policy exists but it is a secret! The company’s media spokesman Norm Fraser in an  email, writes:
     “CMBC does have a policy on workplace harassment. Currently, this is NOT a public document as it is for internal use and it has been used and quoted in the past for various judgments when needed.”)
     Then again, Marwan mused that  his troubles with management might stem from his active advocacy for free fares for passengers, his criticism of the Olympics and his objections to what he sees as dangers for drivers using natural gas fueled buses. According to the fired driver, he reported respiratory discomfort he believes was caused by natural gas leakage into the bus more than once, and in one instance he exercised his legal right to refuse unsafe work by parking the bus at roadside and calling for an ambulance.  Marwan says that many other drivers have also complained of respiratory and headache symptoms when driving the natural gas buses.
     Marwan’s grievance has already gone to a second stage meeting with Coast Mountain on July 23d. Union representative Martin Fisher explains that if the issue of Marwan’s termination is not resolved at second stage grievance, Fisher said, the union has the option of taking it to arbitration.

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy for the Tyee, where this article was first published in July.   He welcomes feedback and story tips at tos@infinet.net