The president of the St. John's International Airport Authority accused striking maintenance workers Monday of wanting to prolong the strike.
Keith Collins, at a news conference following the weekend announcement of a breakdown in bargaining between management and the union, said the Public Service Alliance of Canada's (PSAC) strike pay for about 85 picketing maintenance workers equals their normal take-home pay.
"The objective of this local bargaining team is to extend this strike and to try to force the airport authority to accept demands that are unrealistic and unreasonable," said Collins. "If you look at the six months of strike pay equal to regular take-home pay, that is indicative of a union that is looking for a long strike, and we don't share that interest. At the same time, we'll not be bullied into a deal, no matter deep the pockets are of PSAC nationally, we'll not be bullied into a deal that's wrong for this airport, for this community or for this province."
Union negotiator Chris Bussey, with striking workers near the airport, said the union will only keep the strike going as long as it takes to get a “fair collective agreement.”
“We’re determined to stay out until that’s done,” said Bussey. “Right now the employer wants to be able to lay us off and contract out our work to the lowest bidder. This is very specialized and skilled work, and it takes special training and skills. It’s for aviation safety, a lot of the work that we do. So to contract that out to the lowest bidder, I don’t think is prudent. I don’t think that’s what the community of St. John’s wants, and I don’t think that’s the stewardship that they should be doing within the work place.”
Bussey said the union pays strike pay like any other union. “I can assure you that even with the meagre wages that the airport authority pays, PSAC is not matching those wages,” he said. “We’re out here as a group, collectively working together toward a common goal. Some of the group have to work. The majority of our people are essential workers, and they contribute a share of what they make inside to the workers who are a hundred per cent on strike and not essential. It’s not PSAC that’s doing that, it’s the members of this local who do the work in there. That’s where the strike pay is.”
Collins said while it’s normal for some bathrooms to be out of service at any given time, there has been deliberate damage done to some of the airport’s bathrooms.
“Some of the damage that has been done to the washrooms, it’s not a function of poor maintenance during the strike, it’s a function of sabotage,” said Collins, who added he wasn’t blaming striking workers for the damage, which include paper towels stuffed into toilets to cause blockages, bathroom stall doors removed and taken from the building, and holes punched in urinal drain pipes. “We have no ideas who’s doing it, and of course you can’t have surveillance cameras in the washrooms. But it is happening, and as it happens, we deal with it.”
Bussey slammed Collins for even bringing up problems with airport bathrooms.
“I’m highly insulted that the airport authority would continue to use gutter politics and spread erroneous information,” he said. “I guess Keith doesn’t understand the work we do. They’re moving 1.5 million passengers plus greeters and other people through that building a year, and two million flushes a year takes its toll on infrastructure when there’s no maintenance. Normally, if we weren’t on strike, those toilets would be repaired and other things that happen to buildings that go through that much wear and tear would be done by our workers on a continuous basis.”
The two sides resumed talks late past month, but five days of negotiations yielded no movement. 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.
Travelers at the airport Monday say there seem to be more flight delays since the strike started, along with a general deterioration in airport maintenance, and want to see the strike settled.
Frequent flyer Roy Penney of Mount Pearl said delays seem to be worse, especially during poor weather.
"I've heard that some planes had to be diverted because they couldn't land, because the maintenance and the taking care of the runways wasn't done in time for the planes to land here," he said. "I think they should get together and have a mediator and get this thing settled and over with so them fellers can get back to work. I knows they’re out there and they wants to work, same as everybody else, but when you’re seeing everybody else getting raises and they’re not getting theirs, there’s something wrong.”
Others suggested the union is asking for too much.
Chandra Esperanza of St. John’s, who said she flies a few times a year, said there seem to be more delays than normal since the strike started. “They need to come to an agreement and get back to work,” she said. “I think what they’re asking for is a little atrocious. I think it seems out of range.”
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