Staff at Mainroad East Kootenay Contracting have been locked out of their workplace.
The road maintenance company has a head office in Cranbrook and highways maintenance yards in seven locations around the East Kootenay. It employs 95 staff who are members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU).
According to a press release issued by Mainroad Group on Monday, the lockout commenced on Sunday, August 19.
“This lockout action has been initiated to bring the union back to the table in order to secure a new collective agreement and prevent any labour action from affecting our winter operations,” reads the media statement.
Noel Mankey, vice president of operations for Mainroad Group, told the Townsman that the company hopes to avoid job action taking place during winter.
“Safety on the highways is of utmost concern, especially during the winter season. We would rather deal with the situation now than be entering into a labour dispute during the winter season,” said Mankey.
Mankey said that workers at 27 out of 28 B.C. maintenance service areas have reached settlements, including three Mainroad-controlled areas. The East Kootenay division is the only one where an agreement has not been reached.
“All 27 other areas in the province came to an agreement earlier this year with more or less the same conditions. I don’t want to say they are identical, but they are very close,” said Mankey.
But the BCGEU claims that Mainroad East Kootenay has violated B.C.’s labour code by issuing the lockout and has failed to bargain in good faith.
“We believe the employer is in violation of the labour code by issuing lockout notice and not making every reasonable effort to conclude a collective agreement,” said BCGEU president Darryl Walker.
The union sees the lockout notice as an attempt by Mainroad East Kootenay to “pad their bottom line” during a time of less intensive road maintenance, according to a BCGEU press release issued Friday. Highways contractors continue to receive regular payments for road maintenance, even when the work is not being performed due to a labour dispute.
“Why should taxpayers subsidize a company’s profits when the work they were contracted to do on behalf of the public is not being done?” asked Mike Nuyens, BCGEU’s Operational Services Component Chair. “There’s little incentive for some contractors to negotiate a collective agreement when there is no real penalty for not delivering the service.”
Mankey denied that Mainroad is trying to avoid paying staff during a slow period, pointing out that it is not in fact a slow period at all since workers are scheduled to begin winter preparations this month.
“Work carries on through the summer period. We are moving on to the winter preparation period now so we have to start preparing for the winter season, as well as finishing off our summer program,” said Mankey.
Mainroad says that essential services as dictated by the Labour Relations Board will be maintained throughout the labour action.
“Mainroad is committed to safety on the highways, and we will make every effort to minimize any inconvenience caused by this labour action,” said Mankey. “We are hoping to be successful at the negotiating table to bring this to an end as quickly as possible.”
The BCGEU has called a strike vote for Mainroad East Kootenay employees, which is being held Monday, August 20 and Tuesday, August 21.
In Cranbrook, Mainroad staff are camped out in front of the office waiting to be allowed back in.
“They haven’t told us why we are locked out, there have been no negotiations,” said Greg Pascuzo.
At this time of year, Mainroad crews would be patching roads, repairing bridges, hauling winter sand, removing dead animals from roads, and any other general maintenance needs that come up unexpectedly, such as installing a new stop sign if one is knocked over.
“We are hoping the public will call it in if they see these things,” said Patrick Joinson.”Our families drive these highways, so we want to keep them safe and we’re not able to do that.”
“We love our jobs,” said Pascuzo. “We just want to work. We want to be respected and trusted.”