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  • authored by Kerry Fleetwood
  • published Fri, Dec 12, 2003

Letter from a Ferry Worker

To the Editor,

I am a 16 year employee of BC Ferries. I am a wife, mother and grandmother. I have raised honest, law-abiding children, who both work now in Union jobs. I pay taxes - income and property. I contribute to the economy. I am a good person. I am a hard working person. I have been loyal to BC Ferries, going beyond the call of duty for this company.

I have put my life at risk many times years ago in severe storm conditions, operating a one person island terminal with no power, dragging huge ship to shore cables, 80 feet long, up to the top of the aprons over churning seas, and dangling the monster power pugs over the edge for the docking ships' crews to reach. With the right angle and gust of extreme wind or far reaching wave, I could many times have been swept out to sea, with no other staff around to even witness my demise. I have put my life at risk, repeatedly climbing the gantry (top of the ramp structure, several stories above the water) to remedy an electrical switch problem that if not instantly corrected, would cause severe damage to the ramp and the next docking ship. With repair crews hours away, it had to be done. Such a duty was prohibited by WCB and not in my job description. But, unofficially, it was asked and expected of me by my supervisor stationed on another island.

I have taken stranded customers to my home for the night, when they had nowhere else to go and no way to leave the island. I have helped pay customers' fares out of my own pocket when they were caught short. Sometimes I was repaid, but just as often, I was not. My fellow workers and I decorated our terminal with flowers that we paid for with our own money and Christmas decorations from our homes.

The year I spent on the ships, I came to understand the very important role that all the crew play in being trained and ready at any moment to handle many different kinds of emergencies. That reality was brought home when I took my MEC training: THE DROP. It was quite terrifying. Fellow crew broke bones. In a real emergency, our passengers would also be hurt if not worse, just in the evacuation procedure itself. It is very insulting to look at any crew member on board ships and not respect them first for all the various life saving training they have been trained to do. Wiping tables and cleaning toilets is secondary to their real purpose for manning the ships, and all the Captains and Officers look to them as vital members of a highly trained safety crew. Don't let the company mislead you into thinking that safety is not an issue. Safety is what everyone has come to expect and takes for granted but it is in vigilant action every day out on the seas.

As a ticket agent at a major terminal now, I have been an asset for BC Ferries customer service. I like people. I like our customers. I personally have gone a long way towards creating a positive impression of BC Ferries on the traveling public. I also do a very good job collecting revenue for this company, many many $million over the years.

As in my own example, many Ferry Workers have done a variety of different jobs over the years. All those different experiences have created a cohesive, integrated work force, which up till now, have also helped build loyalty for our company. We are gravely hurt to hear our president denigrate us all and the many jobs we have all been proud to work. He has misled the public to think we are dipping into the "gravy train" of overtime, when in reality, the sailing schedules of the 1960's are inadequate for 2003. The ships would not run at all if not for the voluntary overtime that so many workers give to the company. It is a slap in the face to imply that those workers are greedy. They would rather be home with their families.

The proceedings of the last few months have been orchestrated by this "New" "Private" BC Ferry Services Inc. and the Liberal Government to push our members into a corner. You must have heard by now, what they expected us to accept. #1 - Longer Hours for less pay. Depending on who and where, between 6 to 10 weeks more work for Free! Would you do it? #2 - Lower wages resulting in lower benefits for new hires and new positions. #3 - Pension Plan tampered, and finally, the very worst concession of all that really makes the last 3 null and void, is #4 - The "Unfettered Right" of the employer to contract out any and all jobs it sees fit to create PROFIT for the company. How could we sign away our jobs like that? Would You?

The Liberal Government has, very Undemocratically created the Coastal Ferry Act - Bill 18. They have given themselves permission to eliminate sailing routes after April 2008. They have given themselves permission to increase fares after April 2008, without limits, if the Service Provider can show need for costs and profit margins. They have given themselves permission to sell off assets, routes, service. Basically, they have given themselves permission to do whatever works for them with no consideration or obligation to communities or workers.

With Essential Services set this week, it was the Employer who caused all the problems in sailing the ships on time. They locked out regular, full time employees of many years, with maximum safety training and experience, and wanted to exchange them for casuals. By rights, Regular Employees are entitled to work their regular shifts. They were on the ship to do their job, but the Managers made them leave. The Union has been unfairly blamed for this.

The Government's 80 Day Cooling Off Act was extreme interference. The Union and the Company were in the process of agreeing on the manning of ships' crews when [British Columbia Premier] Campbell jumped in. He has plotted all along to deny us our democratic right to protest extremely unreasonable demands of the company. So he pulls out a "law" from 3 decades back and tells us we are suddenly breaking the law. This has been a set-up, premeditated from the start. There is question about the legality of the "law" and its legitimacy in the first place.

I have been watching very very closely over the last 2 months, and I know that our Union Leaders have been acting honestly and in good faith. They purposely have not been dragging this through the media, because they and we have taken ourselves seriously and did not want to appear as participants in a mud wrestling match when it became obvious that our employer was slinging mud at us. Our Union Leaders have behaved with dignity and integrity in the face of horrendous insults both to themselves personally and to all our Union Members, from the Captains on down. Only this "new" company, run by the overpaid American CEO David Hahn ($335,000 plus bonuses), sees our cleaners and catering staff, our shore staff, our ticket agents, our engineers, in fact, every one who works here, as not being worth their wages, that they have rightfully earned over years of lawful bargaining. This "New" company discredits every employee's years of training, experience, service and years of poverty level annual incomes before they become regular full time workers. The life of a casual is very very difficult. Only the hardier souls survive those early years. Every Ferry Worker here has paid their dues and is worth every cent they earn.

If I am not fired or in jail 2 weeks from now, I will be working Dec. 24, 25, & 26. This is the 12th or 13th year my Christmas will be disrupted for the public. My children have grown up on me and I have missed so much. It hurts to have the angry public drive by our picket lines yelling, "Get a real job you lazy bums!!" and giving us the middle finger. I don't deserve that. My fellow Ferry Workers don't deserve that. I am crying as I finish this letter to you. I've written so many, and so have so many others. This is how the Jews of Nazi Germany must have felt, to be singled out by race, religion, ethnicity, - Union Worker. So much of the media has been so biased against us. Is it because people have been stuck in ferry line-ups? Do you hate us all because the fares go up? Do you blame us for late sailings when it is really the fault of one driver who locked his keys in the car on the first sailing of the morning and delayed the rest of the day?

I've put in 31 hours on the picket line this week. I showed up at my workstation this morning and remained there the entire shift. I am willing to work. I WANT to work. But I will not be bullied by this Liberal Government without speaking up. I will support all the other very fine people I work with and our dearly beloved Union Negotiating Team who are sacrificing so much for us and for all Labour in this province that is at the precipice of the same treatment from the Liberals. We are standing up for everyone.

I will be joining the picketers on Fort Street after dinner, and then get up at 4:00 am tomorrow to head out to my ticket booth at my start time with my picket sign.

Kerry Fleetwood

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