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Lockout halts empty coal train traffic through Abbotsford

Southern Railway of BC locks out 126 workers after contract negotiations fail.
Empty coal trains have stopped moving through Abbotsford as a result of a lockout at the Southern Railway of BC

By Grant Granger, New Westminster News Leader

Empty coal trains have stopped running on Southern Railway of BC (SRY) tracks through Abbotsford after the company locked out its 126 workers Monday following a vote last week to reject the company’s “final offer” for a new contract.

SRY moves freight around the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley and operates a yard off Vye Road in Abbotsford. The company employs 20 people in Abbotsford and moves goods for several Abbotsford companies.

While SRY continues to run its own trains with management crews, BNSF trains that have been using SRY tracks to move empty coal cars west from the Point Roberts coal terminal through Abbotsford and into the United States at the Sumas border crossing have stopped.

The railway served 72-hour lockout notice on Dec. 31, a day after CUPE 7000 members voted 91 per cent to turn down the six-year offer of 1.5 per cent for the first four years and 1.9 per cent for the final two. Only 10 members did not vote. The lockout went into effect Monday at 5 a.m.

"I'm not really surprised given that they've been threatening for some time that they were going to do this," said CUPE 7000 president Bill Magri.

The union, which has been joined on the picket line by SRY's six office workers represented by COPE 378, is expecting the dispute to be a long one.

"We started bargaining in the summer and we've only met about six times. The employer is not interested in bargaining at all. They wanted to get to this point, and that's where we are. It could be a long one, and we're definitely prepared. We'll just dig in and see where we go," said Magri.

SRY president Frank Butzelaar said the company has 34 managers who will continue to keep the trains moving.

"They're all trained and all have operating backgrounds, and we're going to do our best to provide a high level of service to our customers," he said.

Butzelaar said SRY is a small, local company struggling to compete against large trucking companies and large national railways with inter-modal operations.

"We believe our offer is fair," said Butzelaar, who added the offer included a $1,500 signing bonus. "The union is quite unaccustomed to small companies. They are unwilling to accept small companies can't support benefit packages that larger companies can."

He said SRY asked the union to give up post-retirement benefits for future employees with current workers retaining theirs.

"The cost of providing that benefit has grown exponentially in the last five years, and a small company like us can't afford to do that," said Butzelaar. "The union won't acknowledge the fact we're not TransLink, we're not BC Hydro."

Negotiations began June 11, 2014 with CUPE 7000 voting 98 per cent in favour of strike action in November.

The dispute went to Labour Relations Board mediation in early December with the company invoking its right to require the union to hold a vote on their offer.

"It's very clear the guys were not happy with what had been offered up to that point," said Magri.

In addition to the retirement benefit request, Magri said SRY wants "to take away any protection that our members have for turning down overtime. They basically want to work them like dogs rather than hire the persons they desperately need."

Magri said SRY had 168 union members two years ago and now frequently requires its members to work double shifts or work on scheduled days off.

"It's leading to a lot of fatigue, which then leads to safety issues because guys are tired, working beyond their capabilities," said Magri.

In the company press release announcing the lockout, Butzelaar is quoted saying "SRY believes in the collective bargaining process. Unfortunately CUPE-7000 has not shown similar commitment."

Magri laughed at that statement. "I'm not surprised. Mr. Butzelaar has not been involved in the process at all. He has distanced himself in the process," he said.

Magri noted the union's research indicates private industry contracts are settling around three percent. "I'm not saying that's what we asked for [but] what they've offered doesn't even meet inflation."

He also disputes the company's claim SRY employees are the highest-paid shortline rail workers in Canada and in many cases receive higher wages than those doing similar work for CN or CP.

"I won't comment on that. I doubt that they're higher paid than CN or CP that's for sure," said Magri.

In addition to its main yard that straddles the New Westminster-Burnaby border south of Stewardson Way, SRY also operates a yard off Vye Road in Abbotsford that services feed mills where about 30 per cent of its employees are based.

SRY was scheduled to shut down its Quayside Drive crossing to traffic Monday in order to do work on safety improvements but it was called off due to the labour dispute.

-with files from Tyler Olsen