April 13, 2023

STROBE LIGHTS AND MUSIC are not what most commuters are expecting when stuck in a severe snowstorm. But help comes in many unpredictable shapes and sizes.

In late November, rescue came in the form of a loud and bright van known as the Wage Wagon, which belongs to the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry Local 170 (UA 170).

On Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, a blizzard with winds reaching 100 kilometres per hour wreaked havoc across B.C.’s south coast, blanketing the roads with up to 25 centimetres of snow. Both bridges connecting Delta’s Annacis Island — where Local 170 headquarters are located — to Surrey and New Westminster were shut down, trapping drivers on the island. Traffic across the Lower Mainland stood still.

Will Schwarz, executive director for the United Association Piping Industry College of BC (UAPICBC), tried heading home from work. But after five hours, his car had moved less than two kilometres. He pulled over at around 9 p.m. to get something to eat, but there was nothing available.

“The Wendy’s was shut down. Timmie’s was out of food. Everyone was sitting around wet and cold with nowhere to go,” said Schwarz. “So, I texted Ryan: ‘Fire up the Wage Wagon and tell the row of cars they can crash here.’”

Ryan King, Local 170 business development rep, quickly responded that he was on his way. Schwarz and King drove up the wrong side of the road in the Wage Wagon — a van retrofitted into a mobile office complete with a desk, couch, sound system and TV — inviting trapped commuters back to the union hall to wait out the storm.

“The wage wagon is like our Batmobile,” said King. “I was driving with the van door open, and Will would jump out, knocking on windows and handing out business cards and pointing to the address on the card.

”Some drivers had been sitting in traffic for up to eight hours and were running out of gas.

“It was pretty brutal. I was freezing in the slush and snow, wearing sneakers. I was soaked up to my knees,” said Schwarz. “I’ve got three daughters, twins that are four and a six-year-old, and I could see kids in the back of some of the cars. There were a couple of kids that came back with their parents to the hall.”

Just a couple kilometres down the road, UA 170’s hall was open, heated, with available restrooms and even food. The onsite eatery Bread & Cheese stayed open late into the night to provide meals to the trapped UAPICBC students, staff, union members and about 30 commuters who came back to the hall including a group of truck drivers, and a mother and daughter. Owned and operated by Adrian Fehr and Max Town, Bread & Cheese provided hot meals and drinks to everyone free of charge.

“I had some grilled cheese, Cubanos and California Dreamin’ sandwiches,” said Fehr. “The first group, I made them a chicken pesto. I didn’t charge anyone, [and] the next day, the union told me to charge them for all of the food. My experience with the union has always been really positive.”

Union members and guests made themselves comfortable with jackets for pillows and slept in chairs or any spot they could find. Students slept in their classrooms under desks in nests of coats and backpacks. Schwarz crashed on the floor of his office for a couple of hours. It was 3 a.m. by the time the bridges reopened, traffic cleared and everyone was able to go home. Fehr called the day “snowmageddon.” Schwarz just called it a “really long Tuesday.”

No matter what you call it, UA 170’s quick-thinking response and hospitality showed a true commitment to supporting fellow community members in the face of adversity.

By Tatiana Tomljanovic