Striking airport maintenance workers marked six months off the job Monday with a silent march through the St. John’s airport.
About 75 workers and supporters of the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s Union of Canadian Transportation Employees Local 90916 walked several times through the terminal building, forgoing the chants of “solidarity” and other slogans from a similar rally in September, less than two weeks after the strike began Sept. 11. This time around, said union negotiator Chris Bussey, the silent march was meant to evoke a vigil. Other workers stationed at the entrances handed out leaflets urging the public demand airport management settle the strike.
“Six months on strike is too long to be on strike when we’re facing great economic conditions for the airport, but they’re looking for great cuts from the union,” said Bussey. “It affects job security. It affects contracting out.
“The silence — if we don’t stand up now for what we’re fighting for, then that’ll be the voices that are left. There’ll be very few people left in that workplace. Their goal seems to be to get the union out of the workplace,” Bussey said.
At issue are wages and airport management contracting out work, he said.
“We don’t see any reason to give concessions on the language for either contracting out or job security,” he said, adding that the airport has put forward contract language suggesting categories of work to be contracted out that are broad enough to encompass almost anything done at the airport, including work done by the union.
“They committed going into the last round of bargaining to give us a list of work that they contracted out in the past, and we were agreeable that that was work they had contracted out and could continue to contract out, but when they came to the table they came with categories or buckets of work, and those categories or buckets could encapsulate every bit of work that’s done at that airport, so that was not acceptable.”
But Keith Collins, president and CEO of the airport authority, said the only thing that’s changed with work the airport would contract out is that the union wants a veto over what is done.
“What we proposed to the union in the most recent round of bargaining was language that would support our current practice. No more, no less,” he said. “Any suggestion that our objectives are beyond that, I think at this stage, is fear-mongering to keep our employees off-balance and keep them under the control of their bargaining team.”
Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour president Lana Payne, speaking to the crowd, called out the airport authority’s chief negotiator, Denis Mahoney, who also represented employer Vale during the 18-month Voisey’s Bay strike, which ended Jan. 31.
“I think his history shows he’s part of the problem. He has two very, very long strikes on his record. Now he’s president of the St. John’s Board of Trade, and we have a situation where we have a strike here at this airport,” said Payne. “He’s almost playing two roles here in many cases, when you hear on the one hand the Board of Trade trying to pump up business and tourism and all of this, and yet we have a strike here where he’s basically, in my opinion, not been bargaining fairly with these workers.”
Mahoney, through the board of trade, declined to comment.
Bussey said he’s not surprised the strike has lasted this long, and blamed management’s unwillingness to settle.
“I know the negotiator they’re using is notorious for long strikes,” he said. “So I understood that their agenda would be to stay out and to keep workers on the picket line as long as they could.”
Collins said it’s the union that has dug in its heels and ensured a lengthy strike.
“Our concern was that PSAC wanted a strike first and a deal second, and that was their behaviour at the bargaining table,” he said.
Monday’s rally drew federal and provincial politicians calling for an end to the strike. While Liberal MHA Eddie Joyce urged both sides to get back to the table.
“Let’s get back to the table, let’s get this resolved, so that we can get this airport up and running so the major conventions that were cancelled can come back here,” he said — NDP MHA Gerry Rogers laid the blame for the length of the strike at management’s feet, saying the authority has been unwilling to negotiate.
“Workers are the basis of our economy, and if we do not have a secure work population, it’s going to come back and bite us in the end, because then people cannot participate in the economic functions of our community and the economic health of our community,” she said. “This airport is not supposed to be for profit. It’s a not-for-profit service to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s what it’s about, and our workers are underpaid compared to other workers in the rest of the Atlantic provinces.”
NDP MP Jack Harris has been flying in and out of the Gander airport since the strike began. He said it’s unfortunate that the strike is a situation in which Newfoundlanders are telling other Newfoundlanders they don’t deserve the same amount of money similar workers at the Halifax airport receive.
“That’s shocking. They’re looking at an equity situation: The same work, the same kind of facility — very profitable airport here. The revenue is very high, so they’re seeking to have a pay relationship that recognizes the work they do,” said Harris.
The most recent round of bargaining broke off at the end of February. The union wants a 56 per cent increase over four years, including a 34 per cent bump in the first year, retroactive to 2009. The airport authority’s latest offer is 33.8 per cent over seven years, also retroactive.