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Rocky Mountaineer Lockout Goes off the Rails

Judge slaps union, politicians blast owner, replacement hire whacks passenger.

By Tom Sandborn 5 Sep 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. You can find his previous Tyee stories here. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos@infinet.net.

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Teamster Local 31 members picketing Rocky Mountaineer in Vancouver in July. Photo: Tom Sandborn.

The labour fight at Rocky Mountaineer rail service keeps chugging into ever more twisty terrain, with no clear sight of a resolution down the track.

Just last week a Vancouver judge found Teamster Local 31 in contempt of court because of picket line activities outside the Lower Mainland operations of Rocky Mountaineer.

After Vancouver's Non-Partisan Association municipal political party chose Rocky Mountaineer boss Peter Armstrong to spearhead its fundraising, opposing councillors sent a letter to Armstrong slamming him for hiring "strikebreakers."

And now the Teamsters are pointing to the recent injury of an elderly passenger as evidence those replacements pose a safety risk for passengers -- a charge the company denies.

Strikebreakers hired on Craigslist

The dispute that led to the contempt ruling started with the rail service's management recruiting potential strike breakers (otherwise termed "replacement workers" or "scabs" depending on one's point of view) on Craigslist, the online free classifieds service, in May. Next came a Teamster strike vote. Then the employer locked out its unionized workers in June.

Rocky Mountaineer is currently operating behind picket lines using those workers it hired through Craigslist to replace the locked out Teamsters.

On Aug. 25, Justice Affleck of the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that Teamster Local 31, which represents the locked out on-board attendants at the luxury rail travel firm, is in civil contempt of court because of incidents on picket lines between July 11 and 22.

Justice Affleck rejected management claims that union pickets had breached a court order prohibiting them from "intimidating, attempting to intimidate, or harassing in any manner the Plaintiff's employees, contractors, train passengers, customers, or suppliers of the Plaintiff."

However, the judge did agree with claims from Rocky Mountaineer management staff that union pickets had breached an earlier order, which prohibited them from getting in the way of and slowing vehicles and people trying to get to the Rocky Mountaineer train and board it.

Justice Affleck ruled against the union for allowing its picketers to say "stop" to taxi drivers and having them "stand in front of buses and taxis and [refusing] to move them out of the way when requested to do so."

Local 31 lawyer Leo McGrady told The Tyee that a hearing to impose sanctions on his union clients had not yet been scheduled. He said the union would be suggesting the fine be fairly minimal, given that "there was no violence and no threat of violence, and no intimidation."

'We are at an impasse': Rocky Mountaineer

Local 31 president Stan Henessy said he was disappointed by the contempt finding.

"This is such a peaceful, quiet picket line," he told The Tyee, noting that no customer complaints, or police complaints or charges, were presented to the court. The picketing will continue, Hennessy said.

Both Hennessy, speaking for the Teamsters, and Ian Robertson, who speaks for Rocky Mountaineer, were doubtful that the dispute would be solved any time soon, each blaming the other side for lack of progress.

Robertson told The Tyee that his company had made seven separate offers to the union, the last on July 8, and all were rejected.

"We have had no new creative proposals from the union," he said. "We are at an impasse, but we are still working with the federal conciliator, and we're ready to bargain in good faith."

Hennessy, speaking for the unionized on-board attendants, said his members want a settlement, and that the union was surprised to hear Rocky Mountaineer spokespeople in radio interviews claim that the company was always ready to negotiate.

"That is categorically not true," he told The Tyee. "The last offer the company tabled was worse than the one my members rejected when they took a strike vote in June, and that bad offer was made a month and a half ago. At that point they wanted to roll back wages by two per cent and take away some things that have been in the contract for a while, like private accommodation for the on-board attendants when they finish their long shifts. It sure looks to us like this employer doesn't want to negotiate seriously. They are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers and security guards, but they won't move on our contract proposals. Our members are determined to win. "

Teamster lawyer McGrady said that any thoughts the employer might have that the setback in court would weaken the resolve of the Rocky Mountaineer employees would be a mistake. "The Teamsters who work for the Rocky Mountaineer are committed to their contract demands," he said. "They are not going to be starved out."

(McGrady also provides legal representation to The Tyee.)

Elderly rider injured

One of the questions raised by the use of strikebreakers to replace trained passenger attendants, the Teamsters' Hennessy told The Tyee, is whether the new workers are properly trained and prepared. He introduced a Tyee reporter to one former Rocky Mountaineer passenger who says her mother was injured by a strikebreaker who "didn't seem to know what she was doing."

Dianne Wiebe cares for her 92-year-old mother, Gilda, who suffers from Alzheimer's. On Aug. 5, she and her mother boarded the Rocky Mountaineer out of Whistler to return home after a short vacation stay in the resort community. Wiebe told The Tyee that the trip to Whistler on the luxury train had gone without incident, and that she had crossed the Teamster picket line without any trouble. But when she and her mother came on board to return home, the on-board attendant seemed confused about how to work a fold-down table mounted close to her mother's seat.

"She started yanking around with the table, eh? She didn't seem to know what to do. I learned she had only been working four days. She dropped the table and it came down hard on my mother's leg, hitting her near her knee. It left her black and blue, and that night I had to call the paramedics because she was having heart fibrillations, something she's never had before. It was scary, and I think the trauma on the train caused it."

Training not to blame: Rocky Mountaineer

Wiebe said that after she arrived in Vancouver, she stopped to talk with the pickets outside the station. They told her the table was easy and safe to deploy if you knew what you were doing. Since the incident, Wiebe has been in touch with Rocky Mountaineer management staff and told them they should be ashamed for letting the accident happen.

"They didn't want to take any real responsibility," Wiebe told The Tyee. "They refunded me the cost of our ticket, but nothing else, even though the worker involved didn't seem to be properly trained."

Training, Rocky Mountaineer's Robertson told The Tyee, is not the issue. "We are, of course, very apologetic about the unfortunate incident with Ms. Wiebe," Robertson said on Aug. 30. "Our current on-board attendants have been trained up to Transport Canada standards. We serve over 60,000 passengers a year and we always have a few incidents like this, no matter who is working."

Robertson said that his office has a file open on the Wiebe incident, but he blamed Wiebe for lack of progress in settling the matter.

"We have been clear with her that we need to see a doctor's report and x-rays. She hasn't provided us with that information," he said.

Councillors' letter blasts train boss

Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountaineer dispute has become a hot issue for some Vancouver municipal politicians. In a July 22 letter to Armstrong, the Vancouver businessman who heads up the company that operates the Mountaineer trains, all the sitting COPE and Vision councillors urged an end to the use of strikebreakers and a return to the bargaining table with the Teamster employees. The letter, on official City of Vancouver Councillors' Office letterhead, argued that Armstrong's tourism employees were important representatives of the city as well as of the company.

"Nevertheless, your firm has not only locked out these loyal employees, but immediately replaced them with strike breakers, an act that would be illegal under provincial law. We do not believe we can build the tourism industry with a strategy that treats customer service reps as little more than disposable people, to be used and discarded. We urge you to stop using replacement workers immediately and return to the bargaining table to conclude a new agreement to end the lockout," read the letter, signed by nine of 10 serving city councillors.

Mayor Robertson's name was absent from the letter to Armstrong. His media spokesperson told The Tyee the mayor was on vacation, and could not comment on whether he had been asked to endorse the call to end the use of strikebreakers.

Suzanne Anton, Vancouver's lone NPA councillor, declined to add her name to the letter. Anton had already announced, on May 30, that Armstrong will serve at her party's campaign chair in the upcoming civic election.

On Aug. 30, when The Tyee revisited the NPA website to take another look at the May announcement, it had disappeared from the site, and an attempt to search the site for files with Armstrong's name came up empty. However, a staffer at the NPA office assured The Tyee that the files on Armstrong had been accidentally lost during revisions of the site and would be replaced, and that Armstrong was still in place as the NPA campaign chair.

'They're trying to embarrass me': Armstrong

Armstrong spoke out against the council letter, telling Mike Howell of the Vancouver Courier that it had been politically motivated, a charge Anton echoed in an interview with The Tyee.

In the Courier, Armstrong said "I think they're just trying to find ways to either embarrass me or put pressure on me. I'm disappointed and I think it's unbecoming for the city councillors. They're using my employees as a bit of a pawn."

Anton concurred. "I think there is a possible political motive," she said. "Why would councillors want to get involved with a private labour dispute?"

COPE's Ellen Woodsworth told The Tyee that she signed the letter, an initiative of Vision's Geoff Meggs, because "workers need to know that council supports demands for decent wages and conditions. The tourist industry is very important to us."

Meggs said it was important for council to support people in trouble, especially in a key sector like tourism. He said he was disturbed the Rocky Mountaineer workers had been locked out and replaced by strike breakers.

Woodsworth and Meggs denied Anton's claim that the letter was a political ploy to embarrass the NPA.  [Tyee]

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