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Ferries Safety Will Be at Risk Warn Officers

'We've lost trust in the corporation.' Officers fighting to stay in union say it protects them when standing up for passenger safety.

By Andrew MacLeod 12 Apr 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

There will be increased safety risks and cancelled sailings due to British Columbia Ferry Services Inc.'s exclusion of senior officers from their union, a spokesperson for those officers warned today.

"We've already had missed sailings, and the public's going to see more of that, I expect," said Steve Neish, a BC Ferries chief engineer and a West Coast Ships Officers' Association board member.

"The ferries are safe, everything's fine right now," Neish said outside BC Ferries' downtown Victoria headquarters. "But this is a change, a change in the culture... Over time this will change how safe the company is and how the company is run, for sure."

The issue has been simmering since Sept. 2010, when mediator Vince Ready ruled that most masters, senior chief engineers, chief engineers, senior chief stewards and chief stewards should be excluded from the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union.

The BCFMWU appealed the decision to the Labour Relations Board, which is yet to rule on the matter.

On the morning of April 11, Neish and some 70 uniformed BC Ferries officers gathered outside the B.C. government-owned company's headquarters. A bagpiper led them through the building, then through Victoria with stops at Transport Canada, the provincial legislature and the ministry of labour.

Officers responsible for safety

The officers were there, Neish said, to "maybe get the attention of the corporation, because so far they've just ignored us and they've refused to talk about it to us or anything."

One of the issues is the officers' right to belong to a union and have it represent them, said Neish. "Even way more important than that is who makes the safety decisions on board the vessels," he said.

"The fundamental problem here is about controlling the vessels... who makes the decisions about health and safety and the environment."

The officers are professional people with years of training and experience, he said. "They have to have the ability and freedom to make decisions without undue influence or coercion from the corporation," he said. "The corporation doesn't like that and they want to have more influence on the decisions we're making. That's what everybody believes and that's what we feel it's about."

The union gives them a layer of protection so they can do their jobs properly, he said. "Without a professional organization or union to protect us we're open to being pushed around by the company, and that's what we're worried about."

Neish declined to give specific examples, but said, "There are people who have been let go from the company, they were able to do that because they didn't have union representation, who were only doing their job and they were operating in what they thought was the best interests of the ferry corporation and the ships and the safety of the traveling public.

"In the end, because the company didn't like the direction they were going, or didn't agree with what they were doing, they were just let go. We've seen it happen. That's what we're afraid of."

A call to BC Ferries media line was not returned.

Lack of trust

The exclusions affect around 150 of the ships' officers. The WCSOA estimates that 80 per cent of the senior officers the company has offered positions outside the union have declined to take them.

Accepting BC Ferries' offers would mean more money for many of the officers and would allow for them to be paid bonuses, Neish said. That comes with a big risk though, he said. "It's fundamentally not a safe idea to have technical people, their whole job is responsible for safety, on a bonus structure for their pay."

BC Ferries fails to recognize how seriously engineers take their work, said George Robinson, a senior chief engineer on the Spirit of Vancouver Island and a WCSOA board member who was at Monday's protest. "Being a marine engineer, it's more than a job because it takes so long to get our qualifications and everything," he said.

It takes between eight and 10 years to get certified as a chief engineer, he said. They do their work in a hot, noisy environment and their technical ability has to be high, he said. "The job becomes a part of you."

"No trust," said Neish, when asked how he'd characterize the current relationship between the workers and the company. "These guys here have lost trust in the corporation because of their actions and it's definitely a concern when the senior people on the ships who are responsible for safety and the environment, are not trusted by the corporation and they don't trust the corporation."

Another contact said the relationship between BC Ferries and the union is the worst it has been since 2003, when the union went on strike over work hours and contracting out.

"We've said for years it can't get much worse, and it keeps getting worse," said Neish. "Definitely to a higher level. This has ramped up really bad."

Later in the day he called to say the officers tried to deliver a letter to the corporation about their concerns. "They wouldn't come out and talk to us," he said. "They wouldn't come out of their fortress there even to accept the letter."

A request for a meeting earlier in the year had met a similar response, he said. "They just flat out refused to talk to us."

Canceled sailings

British Columbia New Democratic Party ferry critic Gary Coons sent letters last week about the situation to Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom and Labour Minister Stephanie Cadieux.

"It should be very concerning to both ministers and the traveling public," said Coons. "The crunch of the matter here is when you have this group of officers and engineers expressing their concerns, we all should be concerned."

582px version of BC ferries union protest
Seventy BC Ferries officers gathered at fleet headquarters yesterday to warn pulling them from union would erode safety protections. Photo: A. MacLeod.

He said he asked Cadieux to halt the exclusion process, at least until the Labour Relations Board makes a decision.

And he asked Lekstrom to consider the safety issues, as well as pointing out that if sailings are missed because of the situation, BC Ferries will likely be breaking its service contract with the government.

Neish said more sailings will be canceled. "That's going to happen," he said. "That's what we believe is going to come out of this. We've already had ships that haven't sailed because most of these ships officers are not taking these positions."

Neish said there was a day a month ago when the Queen of Nanaimo was delayed at Tsawassen for about four hours due to a lack of crew, and the North Island Princess has similarly been delayed.

The LRB is stalling, he said, adding that if the decision goes against the officers, the union will take the issue to court. "We're absolutely optimistic that this will be overturned in the courts."

Representatives of the BCFMWU, including president Richard Goode, were at the protest, but declined to answer questions saying it was the WCSOA's day to have their say.  [Tyee]

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