Published on December 18, 2012
Striking PSAC members man their picket line Sunday. They say six of their members were on the job per the essential workers agreement with the airport authority.
— Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram
Published on December 18, 2012
An airport snowblower works to clear a runway at St. John’s International Airport Sunday. Normally several of the big machines would be working together.
— Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram
Union says not enough snowplow operators, mechanics to fill roster
The St. John’s International Airport Authority is accusing the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) of once again failing to meet its obligations under the essential services agreement.
The snow and its aftermath over the weekend caused a number of delays and cancellations at the airport.
According to the authority, the signed agreement — issued as an order of the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) — stipulates the union is required to co-operate to ensure there are a sufficient number of essential employees available to maintain safe airport operations.
The authority said it exercised its rights under the essential services agreement to ask for additional operators from the union to maintain priority one areas of the airfield and safe airport operations, but said the union failed to ensure there were six additional operators available.
As a result, the single crew of operators was unable to maintain the airfield to a level required for safe airline operations, the authority said.
Had the additional resources been made available, the flight schedule would have been minimally affected, the authority said.
“The union’s refusal to co-operate under the essential services agreement is reckless, irresponsible and is a callous disregard for public safety. Not only did this inconvenience many travellers, the closure of the airfield meant the airport was unavailable for medical flights and emergency landings.
“We view this as a serious breach of PSAC’s duty to co-operate and we are requesting an immediate CIRB hearing to deal with this latest failure,” Keith Collins, authority president and CEO, said in a news release.
He said normal operations resumed Sunday afternoon.
But Chris Bussey, a spokesman for the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees Local 90916 negotiating committee, said the mayhem would have taken place anyway because the authority doesn’t have enough snowplow operators and mechanics to fill the roster.
He also that noted employees have family and other obligations when they aren’t on call.
He contends that because of the airport’s uncompetitive rate of pay, workers have left to take higher wages with municipalities, or on large projects such as the Vale nickel processing plant in Long Harbour.
The union membership wants parity with workers at Halifax international Airport, Bussey said, adding what they don’t want is concessions.
The airport authority is seeking concessions on job security, pensions and contracting out.
Bussey said the union is willing to negotiate, but the members have issued a clear mandate.
“We have expressed that we have some movement on some of the things that are on the table and we’re willing to negotiate, but not to strip all our language and still be with substandard wages,” Bussey said.
Wages vary between the trades. According to Bussey, a light duty snowplow operator here makes $19.04 an hour, while a counterpart at the Halifax airport makes $10 an hour more.
He also said that a heavy equipment operator at the airport here makes $20.69, versus at $30.54 at the Halifax airport.
A firefighter in St. John’s
makes $26.16, versus $34.39 at the Halifax airport. An electrician makes $25.12 here, and a counterpart in Halifax makes $32.14 an hour.
The authority has indicated it has a room rented today for negotiations. Bussey said the union’s chief negotiator will fly into Gander and travel to St. John’s. He said the authority offered the invitation through email and the media, rather than offering an olive branch directly to the union.
“Is it a ploy or are they eager to settle the strike?” Bussey said.
Collins, meanwhile, said he has no knowledge that any workers have left to take more lucrative jobs, adding the airport hired a full complement of winter crews despite the strike.
“We’ve no idea where this is coming from,” he said.
Collins also said the Halifax airport isn’t the right one to compare wages to, since it’s nearly three times larger.
With the current offer, the
St. John’s workers would be the second highest paid in Atlantic Canada, he said.
But while the gap will be reduced, the notion that wages would be matched with Halifax is “not on,” Collins said.
“We simply don’t have the size and the financial capacity to match them,” he said.
As for the contract language, Collins said there are no concessions for current employees.
For example, he said the job security item was one that was guaranteed to federal employees when the airport was switched out of federal control. Under the authority’s proposal, future employees would not be given the guarantee of no layoffs, he said.
And the authority is proposing two options to provide a better split on pension contributions. One option reduces the cap on the index against inflation from eight per cent down to 3.5 per cent, Collins said.
He said if both sides want to deal, a resolution to the strike can be done in a day.
But Collins said this is the second time in three weeks that the authority has had to go to the CIRB related to the union’s violation of the agreement during a weather event. Following an incident last month, the CIRB ruled that the union should have provided the additional resources that were requested, Collins said.
As late as last week, the union and the authority submitted a signed amendment to the essential services agreement to the CIRB that clarified misunderstandings associated with the requirement to provide additional resources, the authority said, claiming PSAC did not honour the intention of this amended agreement on the weekend.
“It appears that PSAC’s misuse of the essential services agreement is a bargaining strategy. This strategy will not work. The essential services agreement is too important to be used as a ploy for bargaining and we are calling on the CIRB to ensure that PSAC will comply with its obligations under the essential services agreement,” Collins said.
The strike began three months ago.
Bussey said the workers just want to be acknowledged for their contributions to the airport’s financial success.
“There is so much that should be going on at that airport and it’s our workers that built that airport to the fine facility it was before we went on strike. The airport now is showing signs it is starting to run down,” he said.