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  • Volume Eight, Number Seven: October 2003

    Unions rally municipalities to oppose BC Rail sale


    Dan Keeton


    Workers at BC Rail are hoping to reverse a provincial government privatization move by appealing to municipalities along the line of the 91-year old public railway. Although the BC Liberal regime is expected announce a successful bidder as early as October 1, the Council of Unions at BC Rail wasn't conceding defeat in its attempt to stop the sale.


    "The Coquihalla Highway was supposed to be done deal and the public turned that around," comments council chair Bob Sharpe. The six-union council takes heart from the public anger over government attempts to privatize the Interior highway that withered in the face of public anger over the heavy tolls that would bring.


    The unions have internal documents from BC Rail estimating that up to two-thirds of the approximately 1,800 jobs could be cut, along with many services to northern communities, if the railway is taken over. By September 15 the bidders were short-listed to four companies, two of them U.S. based. Included were the CNR, CPR, Railamerica and a consortium consisting of Burlington Northern, Santa Fe and Omnitrack.


    So far the unions' efforts have met with some success. The council of the City of North Vancouver, where some 700 BC Rail jobs are located, is one of a growing number of municipal councils opposing the privatization move. The mayor of Prince George, a supporter of privatization, met with a delegation from the unions and went on a tour of BC Rail facilities in the area. "We gave him some information he didn't have, and countered some of the lies," says Sharpe.


    And the unions were set to lobby members of the Union of BC Municipalities meeting in convention in Vancouver late September.


    The unions also staged two small demonstrations outside the constituency office of local MLA Katherine Whittred, with the support of the Vancouver and District Labour Council and the BC Federation of Labour. Labour charges the privatization of BC Rail is another broken promise by the governing Liberals.


    "The premier of this province (Gordon Campbell) made a promise during the last election that this wouldn't be privatized or put up for sale and we're certainly a long way from that position," said Sharpe.


    BC Fed president Jim Sinclair told a rally that Campbell lost the election for the Liberals back in 1996 partly because he promised to sell off BC Rail. In 2001 the party pledged it wouldn't sell the railway, "and today...they're selling BC Rail, not because it's a good business decision. They're doing this because their friends that gave them $70 million dollars to get elected told them their job was not to build British Columbia, but to sell British Columbia."


    Sinclair says 75 per cent of British Columbians oppose selling privatization, which could result in the railway being run from a boardroom in the U.S.


    Vancouver and District Labour Council president Bill Saunders says a key demand is for B.C. Rail to make the bids public. "Because inside those bids, they talk about what their plans are for the railroad." Should Canadian National win the bid it could mean the closure of most of the line south of Williams Lake, he warned.


    BC Rail's web site notes that the company enjoyed a profitable year in 2002. That followed several rounds of layoffs and corporate restructuring to turn around a decade of losses. "BC Rail is expected to produce a profit over the next three years as well. The debt of the Corporation is manageable...," states the web site for the Council of Unions.


    Despite that, the Liberals cut almost all passenger rail services last year and sold off two-thirds of the crown corporation's profitable marine division to an offshore buyer. The government does not refer to the sale of the railway as such, instead calling it a "revitalization." A July release from Transportation Minister Judith Reid states: "Under the BC Rail revitalization initiative, BC Rail’s railway right-of-way, rail bed and tracks will remain publicly owned, while a partner will assume the operations and management of the freight-railway service and provide much-needed capital investment."


    Saunders says the sale of the railway is part of the government's ideological mindset favouring privatization. "We need to tell them what we think about BC Rail, about privatization of the liquor board, of health. These things do not make sense and people have to stand up and take this issue to the streets and to the politicians."

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