picket-2-go

As the Fraser Canyon scenery screams by in a torrent of copper and viridian, Kim Marshall takes one hand off the steering wheel to point excitedly at the blue and gold train as it emerges from the tree line on the right. “There it is guys,” she yells to her two passengers in the back seat.

Iain Batchelor and Mark Hestermann know the drill by now and are already grabbing their homemade banners from the back of the car. They have just minutes to overtake the train, pull over at one of the few clearings beside the track, and unfurl the banners before the train speeds past. Like a getaway driver, Marshall turns the car around ready to be able to take off again quickly after the train has passed.

“WE WANT OUR JOBS” reads one of the signs in red, foot-tall capital letters.

This leapfrogging process is repeated about nine times as we hurtle along the 211 kilometres from Vancouver to Hell’s Gate.

Last June 22, Marshall, Batchelor and Hestermann were three of 108 attendants locked out from their jobs aboard the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer train. The dispute has centred around overtime payment and accommodation for the attendants.

The union representing the attendants served Rocky Mountaineer with a strike notice for June 22, 2011 but, reluctant to actually call a strike, extended the negotiation period to July 14. But on June 22 the railway company, which operates under federal jurisdiction, took advantage of a legal loophole allowing them to hire replacement workers and locking out union employees like Richardson.

Since then the onboard attendants have been picketing the Rocky Mountaineer station and head office in Vancouver for the last 12 months. “The only time the guests see us is when they cross the picket line by bus or taxi in the morning,” says Batchelor who’s been with the company for seven seasons. “And that’s literally only for about 30 seconds.”

“We read some of the guests’ comments on Trip Advisor,” says Marshall. “They wrote how there were only a couple of seconds of discomfort as they crossed the picket line, and then they forgot about us… So we decided we’d then make it a lot harder to forget about us.”

Hestermann agrees. “We picketed all winter in the cold, and it made no difference at all,” he says. “So when April and May came around we decided we needed to make a direct impact on the guests’ experience.”

So call it what you will—a picket-2-go, extreme trainspotting, a mobile picket line—Batchelor and Marshall say it was clearly time for a change of tactics. Marshall says it’s also actually empowering to leave the static picket line behind. “It’s our democratic right to picket our place of work,” says Batchelor. “And our place of work happens to be that train.”

So now, once a week, a number of the attendants hop into a car and track the train as it heads east towards Calgary. Over the past couple of months they’ve tried to map out locations where the train tends to slow down so that the guests have no option but to read their signs and face what’s going on.

One such location happens to be the easternmost point of the mobile picket, Hell’s Gate, where the train slows down to afford the guests a long look at the foaming waters of the Fraser River as it churns through a narrow passage just 33 metres wide. The attendants have also chosen the spot because it’s a point where both the eastward and westward-bound trains pass through, allowing them to track a second train back to Vancouver in the afternoon.

Marshall, Batchelor and Hestermann hold small signs up for the guests on the train to read as it crawls by. “We’ve been locked out from our jobs for one year without negotiation,” they tell them. There’s the odd thumbs-up, but many of the guests stare down at them expressionless, others take photographs.

Marshall says there’s been an effort to get more locked-out attendants coming out on these mobile pickets, but that to date there’s only a handful of them doing it. “Doing this for a day is very exhausting,” admits Marshall. “And after being locked out for a year a lot of the attendants are struggling emotionally and financially.”

Hestermann can certainly empathize. He’s had to rely on sporadic catering jobs in the last year and is currently unemployed. But he says the mobile picketing at least feels like he’s not backing down.

“Right now I feel like I’m in limbo,” he says. “I just can’t walk away from this, at least not without leaving on my own terms.”