Vancouver Local 258 steward Vicki Flett, left, and Local 258 member Wendy Lawson at work as traffic control people at the Pacific Highway Border Crossing’s Covid-19 provincial checkpoint in Surrey, British Columbia. The two are employed by Valley Traffic Systems.

Vicki Flett worked an office job for Telus, the Vancouver-based telecommunications company, until six years ago when she turned from that for a challenge more physically demanding – work as a traffic control person on the roads and byways of British Columbia.

Local 258 steward Kristina Henson on duty at the Pacific Highway Border Crossing’s Covid-19 checkpoint in Surrey, British Columbia. Local 258 members are on duty as traffic control people 24 hours a day at the checkpoint, which is closed to non-essential traffic during pandemic.
Local 258 assistant business manager Dayna Gill.

Drivers recognize traffic control people as the workers holding a sign and directing traffic during construction projects, but that scrapes the surface of their responsibilities to drivers, themselves and skilled workers across the province.

“There was just something about it,” said Flett, now a shop steward for Vancouver Local 258. “I knew I was more suited to a work-boot industry than a high-heel industry. That’s the only way I can put it. Now, look at what I’m doing.”

Flett currently works on the Canadian side at the Pacific Highway border crossing, helping her country deal with the COVID-19 pandemic from the front lines. She also works with other Local 258 leaders to gain more respect for traffic control persons, who perform dangerous and vital work – even though it often feels like citizens and even political leaders don’t seem to realize it.

“We touch base with every single industry that has to be on the road,” Flett said. “We go from road paving to hydro to concrete pouring to repair work when a gas line brakes to utility when a power line collapses. We need to know how every single trade does their job so we can do our job effectively.”

More than 800 Local 258 members work as traffic control persons for 18 signatory companies. A recent successful organizing campaign at Domcor Traffic Control International added to their ranks. About 90 percent are women, assistant business manager Dayna Gill said.

Most drivers view traffic control people as the individual who holds a sign telling them to “slow down” or “stop” or “go” during construction projects. Flett’s current job plays a role in national security.

With travel between Canada and the U.S. limited during the pandemic, she and a colleague are in charge of directing incoming cars to a designated area, where they are questioned by a screening officer from Canada’s Border Services Agency.

Depending on the day, between 20 and 35% of those cars are denied entry. That’s helped keep British Columbia’s infection rates lower than neighboring Washington state, where Seattle was an epicenter of the coronavirus early this year and also saw a spike after the U.S. Memorial Day in late May.

Flett said most drivers have been considerate, but with tensions riding high, getting some to follow directions is a challenge.

“I know I’m doing my part to help keep my country safe,” she said.

Commonly called “flaggers” in the United States, traffic control people have a myriad of responsibilities even in normal times.

They provide a safe workplace for crews and workers on the scene. Directions to motorists must be clear so they easily understand their meaning, often in areas with high levels of noise because of both construction and passing traffic. They do both of these things while staying in radio contact with supervisors on the jobsite, who are constantly informing them of when to expect a slowdown or to give an all-clear.

As if that isn’t enough, they’re understandably worried about staying safe themselves.

According to the British Columbia Federation of Labour, 13 roadside workers in the province were killed on the job and another 63 suffered serious injury between 2009 and 2018. More than half of those incidents involved traffic controllers, with two being killed on the job in 2018. Verbal abuse from passing drivers is all too common.

“It’s one of the most dangerous jobs,”” said Gill, who has worked as a traffic control person since 2006. “You’re maintaining the flow of traffic while protecting workers, bicyclists and pedestrians. Your ultimate goal is to maintain that flow while keeping it safe at all times.”

Training is lightly regulated, however. In British Columbia, new employees must take a two-day course put on by a province-certified Construction Safety Alliance Certified Instructor -- which can cost them $250 unless the employer agrees to pay for it.

The quality of training depends on the employer’s commitment. Unlike apprenticeship programs in construction and some utilities, unions have virtually no say in their operation, although Local 258 works to hold its signatory companies to a higher standard.

Local 258 participated in a recent labour federation study that made 17 recommendations to the Worker’s Compensation Board of British Columbia [also known as WorkSafeBC], a provincial statutory agency that enforces workplace safety standards, on improving job conditions for traffic control persons.

Vancouver Local 258 steward April Wolsynuk, left, and Local 258 member Daena Judd hold signs while directing traffic around a BC Hydro Crew working in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. Wolsynuk and Judd are employed by Go Traffic Management.

Gill hopes to see a day when they earn Canada’s red seal certification, awarded to journeyman tradesman as a sign they can perform their work at the highest level. On a jobsite, traffic control people work with skilled tradesmen and women from virtually every other industry.

That also might lead to more respect. Gill said Local 258 members working as traffic controller persons make $25-30 CAN per hour – far better than nonunion traffic control people but significantly less than a journeyman tradesperson.

“With the red seal, training and apprenticeships across the country would be just the same,” she said. “Now, we’re relying on that company to train you.”

Organizing is a priority for Gill since becoming an organizer and assistant business in March. She’s working with Business Manager Doug McKay and other IBEW leaders in Canada to develop a master traffic control agreement.

“We’re very proud of the work our traffic control people do and the organizing success of them by Local 258,” First District Vice President Thomas Reid said. “This is another example of the diversity of our membership in the First District. We look forward to welcoming many more in our great union and helping them get the recognition and representation they deserve.”

Local 258 is primarily an outside and utility local with members also working in manufacturing, tree trimming and power vac.

“I’m very proud of the traffic control people that we represent,” McKay said. “It’s a dangerous job that they do and they do a great job protecting our line workers. They’re the ones out on the road. They stand there with a plastic sign and keep a 5,000-pound vehicle from coming at you.”