On Friday, July 3, almost 200 flights were cancelled at Toronto's Pearson Airport as 30 of 47 workers scheduled to work the morning shift called in sick and only 22 out of 56 showed up in the afternoon. As well, the workers who showed up to work refused the management’s demands to work over-time to cover the shifts. This wildcat strike action was carried out in response to layoffs of 300 aircraft fueling workers, who are expected to be fired on October 1, 2015, as Air Canada will be utilizing a new subcontractor.
Friday’s disruption was targeted at Consolidated Aviation Fueling of Toronto, which is discontinuing its service contracts with workers at Pearson International and Pierre Elliot Trudeau airports in Toronto and Montreal. Another service provider will be stepping in, which will be cutting wages by 30 per cent, downgrading working conditions and laying off many workers.
The companies are taking advantage of a “legal” practice known as “contract-flipping”, in which contracts are awarded to different service providers every few years, resulting in massive job losses. Current fuel workers, represented by the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), make between $17 and $24 hourly, while their new replacements will make no more than $14 an hour.
Collective agreements are legally thrown out under “contract flipping”, resulting in workers losing their unionized status, and are forced to organize once again. This process undermines the ability of unions to negotiate better conditions. A Toronto Star article published in June 2015 captured the mood of the workers in response to these cuts, with fuel serviceman Hector Silva commenting “The cost of living keeps on going up. Do I have to start from scratch again after I gave them 15 years of my working life?”
When asked about the mood of the workers at Pearson airport, fuel staff representative Michael Corrado explained “It’s a powder keg.”
Furthermore, Harjinder Badial of Teamsters Local 419, which represents the de-icers at Pearson, added “Anybody that was really a whistle blower, anybody that was really pro-union, or anybody that just stuck up for another worker wasn’t offered a job.”
According to Sean Smith of the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council, contracts for airport services historically switched every few years, but in the past workers would switch contracts with little change to their wages and rights. Now, the union says, companies are increasingly contract-flipping to “use the re-hiring process to purge elderly, injured, or pro-union workers.”
NDP MP Andrew Cash criticized this process saying “When we see federally-regulated sectors enter the race to the bottom, it’s very, very, alarming.” In addition, Cash said that this will result in “sensitive work ending up being performed by either poorly trained or unqualified workers.”
This contract flipping is clearly a way of slashing wages and benefits, undermining the union, disregarding collective bargaining and limiting the ability of workers to fight back through strike action.
Profits for the Bosses, Rollbacks for the Workers
After the 2008 recession, Air Canada was experiencing significant losses. It demanded substantial concessions from workers in a variety of airport trades from pilots to flight attendants, including two-tier wage scales and pension cuts. When workers took strike action in 2012 against the cuts, Air Canada received the assistance of the federal government which passed back-to-work legislation, which banned strikes and led to a defeat for the workers.
These concessions were justified on the basis that they were required to make Air Canada profitable. This line of argument has been exposed as Air Canada posted record profits of $531 million in 2014. Nonetheless, Air Canada continues to force concessions and push wages lower.
This demonstrates the hypocrisy of the airline bosses. When profits drop, the bosses cry poor and demand concessions from the workers. When profits are high, they pocket them and continue to push wages down and try to undermine trade unions.
Meanwhile, Air Canada CEO Calin Rovenescu received $5 million over a 3-year period and doubled his pension this year. The obscene salaries of the executives of the airline and fuel service providers stand in sharp contrast to the declining conditions of the workers.
Unions must be prepared to fight concessions and anti-strike legislation
Workers have begun learning the hard lesson that weakness invites aggression, and that the concessions made in 2012 have only encouraged Air Canada management to demand even more. There is an angry mood among airport workers in various trades, and this has been reflected through wildcat actions.
In 2012, baggage handlers, machinists and pilots organized in the same union as the current strikers, waged a wildcat strike challenging the dismissal of airport workers. The current strike action once again displays the initiative of the rank-and-file, this time against contract flipping.
The scattered and unorganized nature of the wildcat strikes largely arises from the lack of leadership coming from the union tops. They have not provided any lead in terms organizing a fight against contract flipping, and the slashing of wages and benefits for airport workers.
Indeed, the leadership of the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), which represents the fueling workers, has come out against the strike and called on the workers not to participate in illegal strikes.
Bill Trbovich, spokesman for the IAMAW Local 2413 told the National Post on July 3 that “We’re trying to contact our people to go back to work and they’re not doing it.” Trbovich then emphasized “We didn’t condone it, OK? We didn’t know this was happening.”
Meanwhile, on that same day, a bulletin was sent to the striking fuel workers in which Fred Hospes, President of local 140 of the IAMAW said “All members need to be aware that the Canada Labour Code prohibits the use of work stoppages to resolve disputes where a collective agreement is in force. You need to be aware as well that breach of the Canada Labour Code can lead to serious consequences for employees who participate in illegal work stoppages.”
The IAMAW leadership played a similar role in 2012 when workers instigated a wildcat strike. Trbovich, made a statement at the height that strike saying “We’re making our members fully aware that if they decide to walk off the job and protest anything they could be fired. As it stands right now everyone is back to work with the exception of these guys who were suspended last night.”
The only thing being put forward by the union leadership at this point is an unfair labour practice complaint, which will be heard by the Canadian Industrial Relations Board. This will commence in September, one month after the workers have already been fired.
In many ways, this rank-and-file wildcat strike is a rebuke to the compromising policies of the union leadership, which have led to defeat after defeat. Trbovich told the Toronto Sun on July 3 that “We don’t have control over individual members,” and that “in the pure sense of the word it is a wildcat strike.”
The strategy of the union leadership has clearly led to defeats and concessions, and this will continue unless preparations are made for a serious struggle. The union leadership must support the wildcat strikers, and assist in broadening the struggle to the different groups of workers at the airport.
How can the workers win?
What happened on Friday is not an isolated event, neither is the case of the 300 workers set to lose their jobs. Just this past May, 282 workers at the airport in customer assistance had their contracts flipped. In April, 100 full-time de-icers were laid off because of contract flipping. Also in April, airport parking attendants launched a wildcat strike after 80 employees of Impark lost their jobs due to contract flipping.
Flight attendants, pilots and customer service workers have all taken significant concessions in recent years, and have been subject to anti-strike legislation. There is a desire to fight back against the concessions and the undermining of the unions, and workers’ rights.
The different groups of workers at Pearson must be mobilized for united strike action. The 40,000 workers at Pearson International have enormous power in their hands and could paralyze the entire airport. If the strikes are deemed illegal, as they have been consistently for the past year, the workers must be prepared to defy these union-busting laws, and the labour movement should mobilize for solidarity action.
Workers should remember that we would not have unions today if workers in the past had not been prepared to defy anti-union and anti-strike laws in the first place. As the crisis of capitalism continues to deepen, federal and provincial governments will continue to use back-to-work and other anti-union legislation to repress workers’ struggles.
The workers must also fight for a leadership that will respond to their needs and demands, instead of one which capitulates to the pressure of the airline bosses, the government and the corporate press. The union leadership must understand that there will not be a return to old-style bargaining where improvements could be won through compromise and negotiation with the bosses.
The bosses are intent on making workers in both the public and private sector carry the burden of the capitalist crisis through cuts and austerity. There is a need for a union leadership that is willing to go beyond the bargaining table and mobilize the power of the membership. Instead of trying to keep a lid on the class struggle, the leadership must mobilize the workers to defeat anti-strike legislation.
The fight at Pearson International and other sectors across the country has only begun, as the workers are taking matters in their own hands. The labour movement must learn from the defeats of the past years and prepare for militant struggle as the only way to protect the living standards of the working class.
Victory to the Pearson Airport fuelers!
United struggle can defeat contract flipping, wage cuts and layoffs!