Locked out Southern Railway workers ‘dig in’

SRY managers keep shortline rail firm's trains rolling in Lower Mainland

Southern Railway of B.C. trains are continuing to run with managers operating them after a lockout of unionized workers began Monday.

A shortline railway company that moves freight around the Lower Mainland is behind picket lines after it locked out its 126 workers Monday following a breakdown in contract talks.

Southern Railway of B.C. (SRY) had served 72-hour lockout notice Dec. 31, after CUPE 7000 members voted 91 per cent to reject a six-year “final offer” of 1.5 per cent a year in the first four years and 1.9 per cent in the final two.

“The employer is not interested in bargaining at all,” union president Bill Magri said.

“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.”

The union voted in November for strike action to back its demands and, after an attempt at mediation, the company opted to require the union to put its offer to a vote.

SRY president Frank Butzelaar said the company has 34 managers, all with operational training, who will continue to keep the trains moving.

“We believe our offer is fair,” said Butzelaar, noting it includes 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.”

Much of the New Westminster-based railway’s cargo moves to or from Annacis Island from points as far away as Chilliwack.

Butzelaar said SRY workers are the highest paid shortline rail workers in Canada, often earning more than counterparts at CN or CP.

According to the collective agreement that expires March 31, SRY current wages for regular employees range from $28.99 an hour for janitors to $36.07 for locomotive engineers and $38.01 for rail traffic controllers.

Without contract amendments, he said, the company cannot remain competitive against large trucking companies and large national railways with inter-modal operations.

SRY is a subsidiary of Montana-based conglomerate the Washington Companies, which also includes shipping firm Seaspan.

– with files from Grant Granger