Rocky Mountaineer locks out employees

All photographs of Rocky Mountaineer service crew picket line Friday evening by Linda Solomon. All other photographs, compliments of Wikipedia.

Rocky Mountaineer, the luxury rail tour company that operates in B.C. and Alberta, has locked out its on-board service staff and replaced them with senior staff and temporary workers.

It’s a move union representative Rod Blackburn calls "distasteful," referring to replacement workers as "scabs."

"Scabbing cuts at the very heart of Canadian society," he said. "It’s patently wrong and it helps no one."

But while B.C. labour laws prohibit companies from replacing striking workers with "scab labour," Rocky Mountaineer operates nationally and is governed by the Canada Labour Code, said Blackburn.

"I’ve certainly heard that word on the picket line," company spokesperson Ian Robertson said of the phrase "scab labour." 

"But we are a federally operated company and have every legal right to hire temporary workers," said Robertson.

"I think that the end of the day neither party wishes this was going on. Its unfortunate, but we continue to find ways to resolve the situation," he added, noting the company continues to operate normally with no disruptions in its service. 

Rocky Mountaineer, established in 1990 and owned by Armstrong Group Ltd., a private company, employs around 300 workers during it’s peak summer season, said Robertson.    

Peter Armstrong, executive chairman and chief executive officer of Armstrong Group and founder of Rocky Mountaineer, has deep roots in civic, provincial and federal politics. Vancouver’s NPA civic party named him chairman in May. He serves as a director of PPP Canada, a federal crown corporation that operates at the intersection of public and private infrastructure projects, and currently sits as chair of the Vancouver Police Foundation.

Armstrong took over the Rocky Mountaineer service in 1989, buying the operation from Via Rail, according to the company website. 

Like Armstrong, several Rocky Mountaineer board members have political pasts. Jim Dinning, former Alberta provincial treasurer, Jim Gouk, former federal transport critic with the Reform Party, and former mayor of Calgary Al Duerr, are among them.

A first class trip from Vancouver to Calgary on the luxury train ride goes for around $1,800 and has been called, according to the company website, "one of the world's greatest trips," by National Geographic.

The locked out employees, about 130 of them, are members of the Teamsters Local 31 union. On June 15 they filed a strike notice and were subsequently locked out on June 22, according to an open letter published on a blog and physically handed to departing passengers.

"Unfortunately, we have been unable to negotiate what we deem to be a fair contract and have been subsequently locked out of our jobs," reads the letter.

"Quite simply, what we were asking for was very reasonable. It is customary to be paid overtime after 8 hours in Canada. However, recognizing that our long days last anywhere from 12 - 16 hours, we asked for overtime after 11 hours; we were willing to take a zero per cent wage increase in order to accommodate this."

Blackburn confirmed the demands.

"They get no overtime whatsoever until they get to 320 hours in 8 weeks,"he said.

"There's a clause in the labour code that states if the union and management come to an agreement they can set variable hours," he said, noting that was before his time and now needs to be reassessed.

"On the table right now, we are just talking at this point about overtime and wages. They wanted to give these people ten cents an hour raise. That's really low ball."

The company's ranking on Trip Advisor has sunk since the lockout, but company spokesperson Robertson today said there are questions concerning who posted the comments.    

"We are affirming the validity of the comments and we will be responding accordingly," said Robertson. 

One commenter whose review was posted on the same day the lockout began, expressed their disappointment. The comment, titled Never Again, reads, "I expected, and paid for, first class service and instead they removed the staff from the train and left me with inexperienced, unprofessional people. The first day on the job for the entire crew."

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