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Workers at White Pass Yukon Route could strike in mid-August

Pay, staffing numbers and health coverage are among the areas of contention, according to union rep
The White Pass & Yukon Route railway train stops in Carcross on July 1. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

A strike could be just over the horizon for the conductors, engineers and brakemen of the White Pass & Yukon Route (WPYR) railway after mediated negotiations with their employer ended in a stalemate over the Canada Day weekend.

WPYR’s conductors, engineers and brakemen — often collectively referred to as “trainmen” — are represented by the SMART Transportation Division union’s Local 1626 chapter.

According to Jason Guiler, a WPYR trainman and the general chairman of the union’s local chapter, if released from the mediation process in the coming days, trainmen could leave their workstations and begin walking the picket line as early as mid-August, as soon as their 30-day “cooling-off period” expires.

Despite initial signs of progress in the recent government-mediated negotiations, which carried over from Friday, June 30, into Saturday and Sunday, the two parties could not agree on three main issues, according to Guiler.

“The company just isn’t willing to budge on […] a couple of the key issues that are really important to us, including the crew size and the reduction in workforces […] we are just not willing to sacrifice the safety aspects of our day-to-day operation, and the loss of jobs,” Guiler says.

WPYR, according to Guiler, is planning to cut the jobs of staff working as brakemen, who oversee a train’s braking systems. The move would result in a substantial percentage of the company’s 27 trainmen becoming unemployed and could impact the safety of the tourist train route.

“If we were to see that position eliminated, a third of our group would no longer exist. And for us, 30 per cent of our group would essentially not have a position anymore,” Guiler says.

“It’s incredibly overwhelming to think about going from having three members of a team [per train] working together to ensure the safety of 600-plus people onboard our trains at any given time to cutting that down by a third.”

Guiler notes that the company cites technological advances as the reason for the probable job cuts. He says that, in recent years, some freight railroads in the Lower 48 have laid off their brakemen and replaced the role with technological solutions.

“There have been some technological advances put into place that have allowed for that position to be essentially unnecessary. But that’s not true in passenger carrying services like Amtrak and other experiences similar to WPYR.”

READ MORE: Job action on the table for trainmen at White Pass Railroad

Perhaps predictably, wages are another significant sticking point in negotiations, with trainmen seeking a salary bump to cover rising cost-of-living expenses and retroactive pay going back to the expiry of their last collective bargaining agreement in 2017.

A fair health and wellness package is also a priority for the trainmen. Guiler notes that Skagway has limited health care resources and that, in a medical emergency, seeking treatment outside the community is “incredibly expensive.”

“In an emergency, you’re flying to Anchorage, or Seattle or beyond. So, the health care package is, for us, a very key component to the position,” Guiler says.

If WPYR’s trainmen are released from the mediation process and move ahead with job action, cruise ship visitors to Skagway may find they are walking past striking workers as they disembark vessels at the city’s port.

“Some of the union leaders reached out to me to ask what the laws are regarding striking at the port, which is a public area. I was very clear to them that they have the right to strike there, and all I asked from them is that they notify our chief of police and refrain from interacting with tourists,” Skagway’s mayor, Andrew Cremata, told the News.

“I firmly believe in free speech, and they have the right to express themselves […] In my opinion, they are trying to bring attention to the fact their negotiations have stalled.”

The contract negotiations with the trainmen and the prospect of a strike come at a notable time for WPYR, with the company enjoying gangbuster business this summer tourism season.

Currently, roughly halfway through the season, WPYR trains have already welcomed 300,000 guests aboard, and the company is on track to service more than 600,000 passengers this year, according to Guiler.

WPYR will begin winding operations down for the season in mid-September, although trains will operate on a reduced schedule until Oct. 25.

Community leaders along the tourist train route are aware of the potential economic impact of a strike.

Cremata notes that predicting the broad impacts of a strike on the Skagway economy is difficult, as money tourists may previously have spent on rail excursions could instead be redirected to local experiences and businesses. However, he notes that WPYR will be the primary victim of a strike.

“The impacts for White Pass are going to be significant, so hopefully, they are motivated to come to an agreement,” Cremata says.

The South Klondike Local Advisory Council was unwilling to comment in detail on the economic impacts of a potential strike on Carcross, the northern terminus of the rail route. However, a representative told the News there would “of course be an impact” on the community if the train service halted.

There is still an opportunity for a mediated solution to the labour dispute, as union and WPYR representatives have an official meeting scheduled with the government mediator on July 31.

“He did pencil in that date just in case there’s any potential for the company to meet with us as a group before, then we potentially come up with a solution,” Guiler says.

“We’re really kind of stuck in a stalemate at this point [but] I’m hopeful that we can still make some progress together.”

In a statement provided by WPYR’s executive director of human resources and strategic planning, Tyler Rose, the company said, “We are still actively engaged in the federal mediation process under the National Mediation Board. We have meetings scheduled in the near future and believe that both sides will come together on a contract that is agreeable to both parties. That being said, we do not feel it is appropriate to comment further in the media on the details of these proceedings this time.”

Contact Matthew Bossons at