The rail yard employees of Southern Railway (SRY) received an unwelcome New Year's greeting when the company issued a lockout notice to union members from CUPE 7000.
The promised lockout of 126 CUPE members took effect on Monday January 5 with the company shutting the gates at work sites and using hired security guards to forcibly remove workers from the property.
CUPE 7000 members working for SRY include conductors, engineers, brakemen, track men, locomotive repair and maintenance, and others who operate, maintain and service the company's freight trains, as well as supervising the switching between lines.
The former collective agreement expired in March 1, 2014 and the two parties met six times during the summer to try to hammer out an agreement.
"Each time we met, the employer was only interested in tabling concessions, they weren't interested in any of our proposals," said CUPE 7000 President Bill Magri.
The parties went into mediation in December 2014, but Magri says the employer was not interested in talking, "they were only interested in forcing a final offer down our throats."
The employer prompted a ratification vote but the membership rejected their proposals by 91 per cent, which led to the New Years lockout.
According to CUPE the company was demanding major concessions in wages and working conditions. Due to understaffing, workers were being forced to work double shifts. Magri says that the SRY was unwilling to address these and other health and safety issues around fatigue and overtime.
SRY is a short-line freight railway that moves cargo to several industrial properties on the West Coast. This provides plenty of opportunities for solidarity, says Magri. CUPE's "flying squads" have been moving pickets to different locations and Magri says that the union has experienced incredible support from other workers.
Eight members of COPE local 378 who also work at the SRY rail sites have refused to cross the picket line. He also notes that a Chevron truck refused to cross the picket line in order to make deliveries.
Magri says that the lockout has also had an impact on the auto industry, since cargo coming from Asia had to be diverted to Seattle and trucked back into Canada.
In New Westminster Paper The Record, Southern Railway's president Frank Butzelaar is quoted as saying that SRY is "a small local company" and unlike CUPE's usual public sector bargaining partners, the company does not have the government's deep pockets.
COPE 378 President David Black's responded to Butzelaar's comments, condemning the SRY president for claiming that the company was too small to pay out, noting that on top of Souther Railway's significant assets, Butzelaar also run's SRY's Vancouver island subsidiary, worth $1.34 million a year.
"What makes Butzelaar's statement all the more ridiculous," writes Black, "is that Southern Railway is owned by American billionaire Dennis Washington's Washington Canadian Ltd."
The lockout affects rail sites in New Westminster, Abbotsford and Delta, where 34 SRY Managers have taken charge of operating the trains at a limited capacity for a service area that stretches from Vancouver to Chilliwack.
"This is a safety concern," said Magri "the public needs to be aware that managers are running these trains, managers that aren't necessarily the best trained or qualified are running trains hauling dangerous goods through people's communities, dog tired."
As far as the union knows, replacement workers have not been brought in yet.
Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. She now lives in Toronto
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