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A series of concessions by labour leaders across the country has put a dampener on the mood of the labour movement recently.  Workers have been told that all they can hope for are reduced benefits, less job security, and they should be thankful to even have a job.  However, a wildcat strike by hundreds of Air Canada workers across the country have shown that in spite of a timid leadership, workers are prepared to mount a massive fight against the bosses’ austerity agenda and flex their collective muscle.  More importantly, this show of strength can actually work and result in victory for workers.

Canada’s largest airline was forced to cancel nearly 100 flights on Friday, 23rd March, and had to delay dozens of others, after Air Canada ground crews went out on strike.  The strike spontaneously occurred at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport after Air Canada management suspended three employees, due to federal Labour minister Lisa Raitt complaining about their conduct upon her visit to the airport.  The strike soon spread to Montreal’s Trudeau airport.  There were even reports of solidarity action by Air Canada workers in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Quebec City.

Federal Labour minister Lisa Raitt was welcomed by sarcastic slow clapping during a visit to Pearson on the evening of Thursday 22nd March.  Several Air Canada employees were determined to show Raitt that her presence was not appreciated, after Raitt brought down back-to-work legislation the previous week against Air Canada pilots, baggage handlers, and machinists.  One ramp worker, Geoff Ward, told the Toronto Star, “Workers started clapping and saying, ‘Thanks for taking away our right to strike.’”

In draconian fashion, Air Canada suspended three workers.  When other workers protested and the wildcat strike was initiated, the airline responded by sacking dozens.   It is another sign how Air Canada, emboldened by the support granted them by the federal Tories, will tolerate no dissent in their efforts to trample on workers’ rights.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) played the role of backing up Air Canada’s threats, warning workers that they needed to get back to work.  Bill Trbovich, a spokesperson with the IAMAW, told the Star during the height of the strike, “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 three guys who were suspended last night.”

This lack of leadership has not been isolated to just the IAMAW or this particular wildcat strike.  For nearly a year, Air Canada workers have been valiantly trying to fight against Air Canada’s attempts to attack workers’ pensions, keep wages down, and start a new “low-cost” airline that would divide workers.  The Tories’ most recent use of back-to-work legislation was the fourth time in the past year that the federal government had taken the right to strike away from Air Canada workers, supposedly on the grounds that a strike at Air Canada would negatively impact Canada’s delicate economic recovery.  This is in addition to the back-to-work order imposed by the government on striking Canada Post workers back in June 2011.

The union leaderships have not posed a sufficient answer to their rank-and-file.  The leadership of the customer service agents, unionized under the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW), agreed to send their dispute to binding arbitration — a case which ended up going in favour of Air Canada.  The pilots have rejected two tentative agreements by their leadership, even firing their own union executive and electing a new one.  Now, we have the case of this wildcat strike that was spontaneously organized and managed to ground much of Air Canada.  It would be hard to find an example of a more militant and valiant workforce than Air Canada’s workers!

At the Pearson picket, workers had a clear understanding of what they were protesting.  One Air Canada customer service worker denounced the suspensions as “the icing on the cake.”  She continued, “The meat and potatoes of it is that our right to strike has been taken away.”  Sean Goveas, a ground worker, told the Star, “We’re not going back to work until we get a promise from Air Canada at the negotiating table… The actual issues haven’t been addressed. We won’t go back if any of us are disciplined.”

The upshot of the strike is that its immediate goals were successful — all of the workers, including the original three that were punished, were re-instated after the workers threatened to continue the wildcat strike for 72-hours (the length of time of the original suspensions). This alone should send a message to the labour leaders about what is necessary to achieve victory!

As we have written on numerous prior occasions, there cannot be a return to the old style of bargaining, and it is high time that the leadership of the labour movement come to this realization.  In this era of austerity capitalism, the bosses will do everything in their power in order to place the burden of the crisis on workers’ backs, in order to restore financial equilibrium to the system.  This means that the labour leadership needs to be prepared to go beyond negotiations at the bargaining table; the very right of workers to organize themselves and to go out on strike is at threat.  If your very survival is at stake, you must approach your enemy with a blade, not a plastic spoon.

The federal government’s aid in helping Air Canada crack down on potential strikes should be contrasted with their laissez-faire attitude towards Aveos Fleet Performance, the former Air Canada subsidiary which declared bankruptcy last week, resulting in 2,600 lost jobs.  About 90% of Aveos’ business came from maintaining planes for Air Canada.  It appears that Air Canada sabotaged their former subsidiary in order to send their business to lower-cost firms overseas.  This just shows how the government will generally come down on the sides of the bosses whenever profits are on the line.  For the labour leadership to ever willingly place their fates in the hands of the state is tantamount to the sheep placing its survival at the hands of the wolf.

We implore the leadership of the working class to actually give a fighting lead in the struggle against capitalist austerity.  The workers are ready to give the bosses a fight, but what is clearly lacking now is leadership.  Workers at Air Canada have shown what the working class can accomplish when it refuses to buckle down.  Let us use the example set by Air Canada workers for a generalized fight back against the bosses’ austerity agenda.