Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Vince Fedoroff

ON-TRACK TO A STRIKE VOTE – A White Pass train is seen in Carcross in September 2018.

White Pass employees to begin strike vote

After six years without a new contract, train operators on the White Pass & Yukon Route (WPYR) railway will hold a strike vote beginning at 8:00 this evening Alaska time.

By Mark Page on June 26, 2023

After six years without a new contract, train operators on the White Pass & Yukon Route (WPYR) railway will hold a strike vote beginning at 8:00 this evening Alaska time.

Union members will be given 72 hours to cast their electronic ballots.

For an actual work stoppage to occur, the process will still need to pass several more hurdles, including the end of a mediation process and a 30-day cooling off period.

Negotiations are at an impasse as the workers seek a raise that comes close to matching inflation, according to Jason Guiler, a WPYR conductor and the general chairman of the Local 1626 chapter of the SMART-TD union.

The union also wants this raise to be retroactive to the end of their last agreement, which would result in back pay dating back to the start of 2018.

This amount would be in five figures for some employees.

“We’ve not seen or realized an increase in our wages since our old contract ended on Dec. 31, 2017,” Guiler told the Star.

Tyler Rose, WPYR’s executive director of human resources and strategic planning, said the company will not comment in-depth on the process at this time.

“We’re committed toward the resolution of these negotiations in the interest of all involved,” he said.

“However, we do not think it is appropriate to comment to the media on the mediation process at this time.”

Workers involved include brake-men, conductors and engineers and are all from the United States. The SMART-TD union represents 125,000 sheet metal, air, rail and transportation workers in the U.S.

WPYR does have some Canadian employees, though they are not train operators and are in a separate union.

Without giving specifics of the union’s wage proposal, Guiler said that what the union is asking for is less than what was recently given to other railroads in the U.S., and though it is tied to inflation, it takes into account the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on operations.

Guiler said he is legally bound not to disclose the specifics of WPYR’s current counter-proposal, but said the offer “is offensive.”

According to a SMART-TD news release from September of 2022, national freight railway workers received 24 per cent over five years ­– between 2020 and 2024 – giving them an immediate wage bump of 14 per cent.

“What the employees and the union are seeking in wages is less than what was provided to the freight workers last fall by the presidential board and by Congress,” said SMART-TD International vice-president Brent Leonard, who has been involved in the negotiations since the beginning of the year. “We think the union’s proposal is fair to both parties.”

Negotiations are currently going through mediation process to comply with the Railway Labour Act.

This act requires a mediator be brought in from the National Mediation Board, which is an independent U.S. federal government agency with the responsibility to aid in the settlement of labour disputes in the U.S. railway and airline industries.

“It’s important to note the Railway Labor Act is designed to encourage the parties to resolve the dispute,” Leonard said.

If the strike vote is successful, the mediator would decide if efforts have been exhausted and the union can be released from the process.

Guiler said he “is confident where we will end up,” as the mediator is already aware of the intention to hold a strike vote.

The vote results will be presented to the mediator at 9 a.m. Friday (Alaska time).

If released from mediation, there would be an offer to enter arbitration to solve the dispute. If both sides don’t agree to enter arbitration, the 30-day cooling-off period could begin before a work stoppage.

Besides just a raise in pay, the workers are seeking to stop the railroad from automating some of their jobs and reducing the number of trainmen on board a loaded passenger train from three to two.

Currently, a loaded WPYR passenger train is required to have a brakeman, conductor and engineer on board, but only needs a conductor and engineer when the train is empty or being serviced.

“There are so many reasons we are opposed to that,” Guiler said, citing safety concerns.

The union members are also concerned about their health benefits, with Guiler saying the company is trying to make changes that would increase out-of-pocket expenses.

During the period in which workers have been without pay raises, Guiler said the company has still been able to buy six new locomotive engine units and make extensive track upgrades.

The average price of a ticket for the train has also increased from $125 to $152 US since 2017, Guiler said.

WPYR was purchased in 2018 by a group that includes majority ownership by Ketchikan-based Survey Point Holdings, with cruise line operator Carnival Corporation as a minority owner.

Routes offered by the service take passengers from Skagway up to the summit of White Pass, and some continuing on to Carcross.

Passengers can then disembark and get on coach buses or other tour vehicles to continue on to destinations throughout the Yukon and Alaska.

Guiler said ridership on the train broke the yearly record in 2019, with more than 500,000 passengers, and this year is on pace for 600,000.

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