The upscale Rocky Mountaineer train is rolling again for the 2012 tourist season, but after a year-long labour dispute, the negotiations between the company and its locked-out employees haven’t moved an inch.
The federally regulated company locked out its unionized train attendants June 22, 2011, in response to the union issuing strike notice. The attendants, represented by Teamsters Local 31, disagreed with the long (sometimes 16-hour) days without overtime and a proposed requirement for them to share rooms between train trips. The company, which sells luxury train excursions through the Rockies, has since staffed its trains with non-unionized replacement workers. Rocky Mountaineer has put forward seven different offers since the dispute began, but all were rejected by the union.
Locked-out train attendant Aldea Pallard still walks the picket lines at Rocky Mountaineer Station on Terminal Avenue. Many of the 130 locked-out workers have given up on the dispute, but Pallard and about 22 others retain their presence. Pallard took on catering jobs to make ends meet but still wound up having to room with another locked-out Rocky Mountaineer employee to save money.
As neither party has budged in their demands since last summer, Pallard isn’t optimistic.
“It just leaves me numb,” said Pallard.
A six-year Rocky Mountaineer employee, Pallard remains incensed. “It feels like a slap in the face. I’ve personally talked to some of the replacement workers and they don’t really know what’s going on...The company is basically looking for the cheapest possible labour source.”
The company, owned by NPA campaign chairman Peter Armstrong, hasn’t had to cut any service, and has even added the new “SilverLeaf” luxury train coach to many of its trips. The union contends that the newer, less-experienced workers are giving train passengers lower-quality service, but company spokesperson Ian Robertson said there is no pressing concern for the company to settle.
Robertson, a former NPA park board commissioner, said train ridership has been down, but attributes this to the global economic downturn affecting the entire tourism industry.
Rocky Mountaineer has taken steps to make sure picket lines are as unobtrusive as possible when passengers board trains in Vancouver. They’ve covered fences with a tarp-like material, blocking signage. It hired a bagpiper to play at the entrance, a move the company contends is to “enhance the guest experience” and not to drown out the voices of picketers.
Vision Vancouver and COPE city councillors sent an open letter to Rocky Mountaineer last summer urging the company to negotiate with the union and stop using replacements.
The company has also stopped renting out the station for events, which were always picketed. Some events, such as a Vancouver International Film Festival gala in September 2011, saw a decrease in attendance as a result. Robertson maintains the venue closure is so the company can focus on its “core business” —train trips.
Tourists who’ve tried to cancel trips because they didn’t want to cross a picket line haven’t been given refunds, but Rocky Mountaineer said they can re-book as late as 2013. Still, nothing in the current situation indicates the dispute will be resolved by then. “I think it’s fair to say that the two sides are very, very far apart,” said Robertson. “We do remain at an impasse.”