The sign reads, “Last washroom for the next 1,000 miles.” Motorists driving on Craig Dobbin’s Way may have thought the warning near the picket line was a joke, but I’d heard it was a true picture of things at St. John’s International Airport.
I’m glad it turned out to be an exaggeration. I was surprised at the cleanliness of the airport terminal when I dropped by this week. I had seen pictures and heard tales of woe from travellers who described the state of things as absolutely terrible. Sure, all the urinals in one washroom were covered with garbage bags, and someone coming out of a ladies’ washroom told me only one toilet was working, but I did find several other bathroom facilities in good operating order.
Out-of-service washrooms have become the oft-talked-about effect of a strike that has gone on for too long. This week, without pointing fingers, management claimed there had been acts of sabotage; the union attributed the problems to a lack of required maintenance. All that matters to travellers is comfort.
Washrooms aside, the airport shows little wear and tear as a result of the lengthy strike by maintenance and support staff. An escalator was out of service, and though rain had cleared much of the snow from the parking lot, I could see where vehicles had been forced to drive into mounds of snow for long-term parking. One guy said he was glad he had a truck, because when he had parked there a week before, the spot had not been plowed.
It’s been a long, cold winter for those on the picket line. They include firefighters, snow plow operators, heavy equipment mechanics, electricians, maintenance staff and administrative personnel. Essential services agreements mean they are actually helping to keep the airport operating, which benefits the travelling public but does little to force a settlement. For management, there is the constant worry of keeping the airport safe and operational, and yes, trying to protect the bottom line.
It would be wrong to suggest, based on one visit, that the strike is having no effect on day-to-day operations. It has had quite the impact, imagined and real, as many people who have come through the airport since September can tell you. That some washrooms are out of order is no secret. Some passengers say airlines have mentioned the strike during weather-related delays and cancellations. There are also maintenance issues an untrained eye wouldn’t notice involving runway lights and loading bridges.
The airport is often the first and last point of contact in our city for tourists and business visitors. It is also a necessary service for the people who live here. The labour dispute will be six months old on Monday. It is not an anniversary to celebrate.
A settlement is long overdue, and without getting into the issues, there is more than enough blame to go around. I have not sensed an urgency on either side to resolve the dispute, and each appears ready to wait for the other to cave. It almost seems that unless the planes stop flying or some emergency happens, the strike will be the status quo. Municipal and business leaders have also been too quiet. They have a vested interest and should be clamouring to get things resolved.
We’ve got a terminal to be proud of and plans to make our airport even better. It may not be as large or have all the amenities of the Halifax airport, which it is often compared to, but the work of those at St. John’s Airport is no less important and no less valued. Excellence in passenger service is the responsibility of everyone who works there — management and union. Accusations will fly back and forth, but all labour disputes are eventually settled. Tourist season is near. We’re trying to sell experiences. Let’s resolve this before we do more damage to our reputation.
Settle this thing now.
Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former
broadcaster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org