Rocky Mountaineer, a railtours company that has helped bring more than 180,000 people to Whistler in the past, has locked out its on-board attendants over a contract dispute.
Teamsters Local 31, the union working on behalf of the attendants, issued a flyer recently stating that it has reached an impasse with the company over a contract that would see the workers get more money for overtime in addition to higher wages, health and welfare benefits.
The response of the company, the union said, was to lock out the on-board attendants as of June 22 and hire "replacement workers."
"The issues are simple," the flyer reads. "When bargaining began we asked for overtime beginning after 11 hours (our shifts are often up to 16 hours or longer), and modest improvements to health and welfare benefits and wage increases.
"Rocky Mountaineer's response was to quietly recruit replacement workers, place them on our trains as passengers, and then lock us out and order us off the trains partway through our trip."
It's the job of an on board attendant to deliver meals and attend to guests' needs while they're travelling on the Rocky Mountaineer to destinations such as Whistler, Banff or Seattle. Tourism Whistler estimates that trains brought 110,000 people to Whistler in 2008 and 70,000 people in 2009.
The union goes on to say that the 108 on-board attendants working for Rocky Mountaineer have helped it earn accolades such as the "World's Best Rail Journey" and "The World's leading Travel Experience by Train."
Ian Robertson, Rocky Mountaineer's executive director of corporate communications, said that Rocky Mountaineer's on-board attendants have been represented since 1990 by the Canadian Auto Workers. That changed this year when the union decided to switch over to the Teamsters, a switch that coincided with their employment contract coming up for renewal.
"Since February 1, we have met numerous times and have put a total of six offers in front of the union and all have been rejected," Robertson said. "On June 15, the union representing the on-board attendants served us with strike notice that said effective June 22 they would be going on strike.
"In order to ensure that our guests had a seamless experience on the Rocky Mountaineer, we felt we had no other choice but to lock them out because as we know, a strike can take many different forms and we did not want to jeopardize our guests' experience."
The offers, Robertson said, addressed concerns around scheduling and overtime but were all rejected by the union - offers that the company thought were "very fair" and represented the economic reality of the tourism and hospitality industries.
"You'll recall back in late 2008 when the world faced a significant recession, the tourism industry and Rocky Mountaineer were not immune to that and we still have not recovered to 2008 levels," he said.
Teamsters Local 31 President Stan Hennessy said that Rocky Mountaineer proposed a bonus system whereby on-board attendants would be paid extra money after the 12th hour of working, rather than the 11th as the union was proposing, money that would move up on a scale after the 13th, 14th and 15th hours.
He said the company is also proposing that workers get shared accommodation in hotels when working long hours in locations far from their homes.
"When they get to Kamloops for instance, the workers could have worked anywhere from 12 to 16 hours," Hennessy said. "So they would go to a hotel, they would put them in a hotel overnight. Right now they have their own room.
"Think about this, you work for 16 hours, you're tired, you want to go to your room, you want to go back working again. The last thing you want is to have someone in the room with you.
"They know that position is totally unacceptable."
Hennessy said the only negotiations that took place toward a new contract were two weeks after the lockout, when a federal conciliation officer contracted by the company called the union and said that it wished to meet.
It is uncertain when the parties will get back to the bargaining table. Hennessy said the union would like to get back to negotiations. Robertson said Rocky Mountaineer is working through the conciliator to try and reach an agreement.
"We did meet with the union just over two weeks ago with an offer and that was just soundly rejected by the union with no counter offer," he said. "So you know, it's unfortunate but it's clear we're at a particular impasse right now."