As someone who covered the ups and downs of White Pass, including labor strife and the reduction of train crews over the years, I can tell you firsthand what an impact even the threat of a strike can have on our community.
When WP&YR convinced the state to do away with the old five-man crew law in the late 1970s-early 1980s, it sort of made economic sense, but it was not popular. The railroad was losing freight and eventually all ore traffic would stop. During the five-year shutdown, the previous owners held fast far away in eastern Canada and eventually convinced the workers to compromise with just three on a train (one engineer, one conductor, one brakeman) in order to reopen the line for tourist traffic in 1988. Since then, except for the pandemic, the railroad has thrived and actually added a fourth person as a guide to announce to the hundreds of thousand cruise visitors and independent travelers who ride our rails.
This all works very well on a line that is truly the “Scenic Railway of the World.” It’s a shame that a strike vote had to be held on the eve of WP&YR’s 125th anniversary this month. From my limited understanding, the workers are asking for a fair wage. I say find a way to give it to them, Mr. Berto. They work hard five months a year to feed families 12 months a year.
But more importantly, do not reduce the size of the train crew and create an unsafe situation on trains that routinely haul 400-plus people several times a day over difficult terrain. Believe me, you don’t want the traveling public knowing that you are cutting back on the number of train crew members who could help in an emergency. Heck, I would be hesitant to take my granddaughter to ride the Santa Train with just an engineer and a conductor on board, and she’s the great-great granddaughter of one of your first brakemen!
So what it really comes down to is protecting families. Keeping them here, keeping kids in the school, keeping teachers in the classroom. Cutting back on jobs is the wrong thing to do right now, especially in a town trying to get back on its economic footing. The railroad surely is trying to do the same, losing half its port revenue (which you knew was coming) and dealing with that rockslide thing and bridges going out. We get it. But you also must understand that when you bought the railroad, it was like marrying into a big family (something I know about). You better treat them with love and respect or you will hear about it.
White Pass has an honored history in our community, and one that has valued its family of workers. Do the right thing by them, please. Only then can you celebrate proudly, and Skagway will celebrate with you.