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'Like Yesterday's Trash'

Locked out Teamsters at Rocky Mountaineer say they've been 'erased' by politically well-connected management.

By Tom Sandborn 17 Feb 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy stories for The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips here.

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Alison and David, locked out members of Teamsters Local 31. Photo: Tom Sandborn.

She was a pioneer for her company, and now, she says, her employer is "throwing us out on the street like yesterday's trash."

Tina Richardson has worked on the Rocky Mountaineer luxury train since its inaugural trip two decades ago, and over that time she has faced just about every challenge that train travel can offer. But being locked out by her long time employer has been harder to face than the dangers of mountain railways, the Teamster Local 31 member said.

"I've experienced derailments and mud slides at work, and I've provided first aid to passengers with heart attacks, strokes and epileptic seizures. For more than 20 years I've studied on my own time to bring more background information to the commentaries we do for our passengers. I've always loved my job, the other on boards and my passengers. But now, instead of negotiating with us, management has locked us out and replaced us with scabs. Management seems both flippant and oblivious."

Richardson, a single mother with three children, one recently diagnosed with leukemia, is at the centre of a long simmering labour dispute at the luxury travel Rocky Mountaineer, an eight-month stalemate that has generated drama and outrage. Samples:

The company recruited replacement workers (known pejoratively to the union movement as "scabs") on Craigslist to replace long-serving union members as on-board attendants.

A judge handed down contempt of court convictions over allegations of picket line misconduct by Teamsters.

A letter from Vancouver city councilors urged management to negotiate with their workers.

And gala events held at the railway's Vancouver terminal had to contend with picket lines.

Now, in the run-up to a new season, ads for scab workers have started running again and the union that represents the locked out attendants is planning a big rally on the afternoon of March 5.

And the mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, has added his voice to critics that say the Rocky Mountaineer is engaging in labour practices that, while technically legal, are unfair and run counter to rules most employers must abide by in British Columbia.

'It's just union busting'

The 108 on-board attendants that the Rocky Mountaineer locked out on June 22 all belong to local 31 of the Teamsters, a union they had recently switched to after a previous relationship with the Canadian Autoworkers.

When The Tyee visited the picket line outside the Rocky Mountaineer depot on Cottrell Street east of Main and Terminal, where the March 5 rally will be held, several of the workers there said they thought the lockout reflected management hostility to their new union.

"It's just union busting," muttered one grizzled picketer.

Tina Richardson agrees. She told The Tyee in a phone interview that her company had hired a new vice president from Disney and launched a new "cheap labour" policy.

"It is disgusting how the company who claimed to have no money to give the onboard attendants a minimal pay increase after a three year pay freeze has spent a million dollars on legal fees, hiring specialized labour security guards since last June 22 at $30 an hour and hired bagpipe players to play during every departure out of Vancouver in order to block out our voices on the picket lines, with no regard for something the company spent 21 years cultivating, 'spectacular guest service.' It is heartbreaking," she said.

According to Richardson, the piper, security guards and tarps rigged on the station fence have all had the impact of "erasing" worker presence and their concerns.

Ready to negotiate says company

Ian Robertson, a media spokesman for the Rocky Mountaineer told The Tyee that the labour dispute was "unfortunate" but defended the use of scabs as the company's "moral and legal right." He's right about legality. Normally use of "replacement workers" during a dispute is illegal in B.C., but the railway, which operates under federal jurisdiction, has been able to take advantage of a loophole that allows such nationally regulated firms to hire scabs.

Robertson said his company is eager to negotiate with the Teamsters, claiming the union had not responded since July to his firm's seventh contract offer. However, he also confirmed that agents acting for his firm were busy recruiting "replacement workers" for the upcoming season. One of the banners on view at the Rocky Mountaineer picket line advertises a recently created website designed to discourage its readers from taking jobs as "replacement workers."

Rod Blackburn, the vice president of local 31, sees the stalled negotiations differently than the Rocky Mountaineer's Robertson does. He told The Tyee in a phone interview:

"Sure, they'd love to have us back at the table if we offered something like their last offer. After a three year wage freeze they want us to accept a two per cent roll back in wages and agree to sharing accommodations when we come off very long, exhausting shifts out of town. They want us to ask for even less than their last offer."

Blackburn said his local has begun a campaign of letters to unions around the world informing them of the lockout at the Rocky Mountaineer and urging members not to book trips on the line during visits to B.C.

'They view us as disposable'

One long term Rocky Mountaineer attendant, who asked us not to use her name for fear of company retaliation, agrees with Blackburn's assessment of the employer's bargaining stance.

"They haven't shown any interest in bargaining," she told The Tyee. "They view us as disposable, and they just aren't willing to negotiate. I want your readers to know that our company is not bargaining, and would like our membership to pay the cost of being lockout in contact concessions which seems unfair."

In a relatively unusual move this summer, a group of Vancouver city councilors signed a letter to Rocky Mountaineer management urging a return to bargaining.

The councilors said, in part:

"Nevertheless, your firm has not only locked out these loyal employees, but immediately replaced them with strikebreakers, 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 this lockout."

The letter was signed by all sitting COPE and Vision party councilors. Mayor Gregor Robertson was the only elected Vision representative on council who did not sign the letter, apparently because he was out of town on business when it was drafted. Also absent from the list of signers was then councilor Suzanne Anton, who dismissed the letter as inappropriate and "political."

The Vancouver Observer news site and others have noted that on the Rocky Mountaineer dispute of the fact that owner Peter Armstrong, reportedly well connected in both B.C. and Alberta politics, served as campaign chair for Anton's Non-Partisan Association in the city elections held since the lock out.

Vision councilor Geoff Meggs, who organized the appeal letter this summer, told The Tyee last week that he had no plans to send another message to the company about its labour practices. However, he emphasized, he has not changed his views.

"Workers built the Rocky Mountaineer's success," he said. "It is a travesty to treat long-serving staff this way."

Mayor Roberston: 'Not good for Vancouver'

Although not a signatory to the letter Meggs organized this summer, Mayor Robertson did have a comment for The Tyee this time. In an email forwarded by his media aide, Kevin Quinlan, the mayor said:

"It's not good for Vancouver to see this type of approach take place. I've heard from not just the workers themselves but from other industries who employ them in the off-season about just how damaging the lockout has been.

"Their hiring of replacement workers uses a loophole in federal law; it would be illegal under provincial law. That's fundamentally unfair and should be changed."  [Tyee]

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