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On Thursday, July 27, 700 workers with Teamsters Local 419 voted 95 per cent in favour of a strike after rejecting an offer by Swissport, one of the largest service providers at Pearson Airport in Toronto.

The strikers, who include baggage handlers and cleaners, tow planes, clean cabins, handle baggage and cargo, and perform flight operations tasks for more than 30 airlines.

Swissport is attempting to impose a three-year wage freeze on the majority of their workers, and to require staff to work a minimum of 30 hours per week to qualify for full benefits. This means basic necessities like drugs, dental and health coverage rely on volatile weekly schedules. With the rise of inflation, and with it the rise of the price of living, the gains of the past are being clawed back.

Swissport is also seeking the right to change schedules with 96 hours' advance notice, taking away stable, predictable schedules and not allowing workers to plan their lives more than four days in advance.

The contractor has also brought in hundreds of poorly trained, inexperienced temporary agency workers and has rushed them into positions in a manner that threatens the lives of these temporary workers as well as the safety of the airport as a whole, and undermines the right of the unionized workers to bargain.

To properly work in the sensitive areas of the airport, baggage handlers normally require three to four weeks of training. The temp workers only received three to four days of training. One week into the strike, this has already led to several accidents, cases of lost luggage, serious injuries, and a crash. Also, it is unclear how hundreds of agency workers were able to pass airport staff background checks so quickly, as these normally take three to six months.

Whether it’s Swissport or other companies, pitting unionized workers against non-unionized workers is an old divide-and-rule tactic. In the past this has enabled the contractors to do things like lower wages for all workers and hire a worker in an area of work where at least two or more would be necessary for safe operations.

The pursuit for profit has pushed workers to desperation, injury and death.

In May of 2012, a 48-year-old Swissport worker was killed after being caught between a baggage loader and an airplane. In August 2015, an 18-year-old Swissport employee completed a 16-hour baggage handling shift when his cart crashed into a refueling truck, throwing him from the vehicle and trapping him under its wheels. He ended up in hospital in the trauma centre with head and hand injuries. In March of 2016, a 58-year-old died after suffering a heart attack working at the airport. In April of 2016, a 24-year-old was killed in a rollover with his baggage cart. He was a breadwinner for his family. In January of 2017, a 22-year-old employee broke his leg on Terminal 3 after being caught between a loader and another vehicle.

Some ground handlers carry up to 200 suitcases in half an hour racing to meet the flight deadline before racing to meet another deadline, according to a CBC investigation. The turnover rate for some ground handlers was as much as 160 per cent for another contractor, Menzies Aviationwhere as many workers quit after only a few months, making less than $12 an hour in tough working conditions.

How to Beat the Bosses

Fightback activists recently visited the picket lines at both Terminal 3 (departures) and Vista Cargo (shipment area). The mood of the rank-and-file workers at the picket lines is one of anger at the unfair treatment by the company and a willingness to push the struggle forward. There is also a real sense of solidarity with anyone fighting against their boss, as there were talks of solidarity with OLG workers at Woodbine in Toronto by some who wanted to visit. Even many of the truck drivers ordered to wait in line in order to enter Cargo Vista did not put up a fight, according to the workers there and our experience involved on the pickets.

What Local 419 workers need is concrete support. Pearson Airport has a workforce of 40,000 workers, the largest single workplace in Canada. Many of these workers face the same types of injustices. Unionized and non-unionized workers inside and outside the airport need the leadership to unite them, with the aim of working together against the bosses who line their pockets with millions of dollars.

For example, Air Canada workers who fought a heroic fight several years ago should stand up with these workers in struggle. In 2015, Pearson fuelers showed their courage during a struggle against contract flipping when 85 workers initiated a wildcat “sick-in” strike, shutting down 200 flights and demonstrating the powerful potential a handful of workers can wield. Unfortunately the fight did not go further. The overwhelming strike votes and courage to fight with wildcat strikes, beyond the limitations of an unfair bargaining process, shows the potential that exists with the right leadership.

The future at Pearson Airport is not safe for any worker as Trudeau’s plans to sell off Canada’s airports to his big business friends are a warning of what is to come. This is also an indication of the deepening crisis of the capitalist system inside and outside Canada, a future where there is no room for concessions on the side of the bosses. Instead there are attacks against what was already won in the past.

If Pearson Airport generates billions of dollars in revenue annually, then the workers who run it deserve more than poverty wages and unsafe conditions. They deserve fair pay and a safe airport for all. A strike teaches us that working class people are the ones who ultimately hold power. Not a single airplane leaves Pearson Airport without the kind permission of the workers. This united power can truly be harnessed if we fight for a society that is controlled by working people, not by idle bosses and fat cat CEOs that determine who gets paid out of our hard work. A fight to win better wages and working conditions is ultimately a fight against the profit-driven system of capitalism and for a socialist system. We fight for the victory of the workers as part of a wider struggle for a socialist society, where working class people can finally take control of their own lives.

Support the strike of Teamsters Local 419!

An injury to one is an injury to all!

Non-unionized and unionized workers unite to strike and push the struggle forward!