Pearson ground crew workers on strike

TORONTO — About 700 ground crew workers at Canada’s busiest airport went on strike Thursday night after they rejected a contract offer from their employer.

The members represented by the Teamsters union marched at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport waving picket signs and chanting “respect.”

“We’re hoping to have little or no impact on the public, Local 419 vice-president Harjinder Badial told reporters after the membership voted.

The labour dispute could have an impact on some operations at Pearson, but the Greater Toronto Airports Authority earlier said it had a contingency plan in place in the event of a strike or labour disruption but did not provide details.

The GTAA posted a message on its website warning that the “labour disruption may affect some flights” and advises travellers to contact their airlines to check their flight status.

The arrivals and departures board at Pearson displayed only a handful of flight delays as of early Friday morning.

The unionized workers are employed by Swissport, a company that services 30 airlines at the airport including Transat and Sunwing, and large global airlines such as Cathay Pacific, KLM, Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways, Alitalia and El Al.

The workers include baggage handlers, cargo handlers, cabin cleaners and other ground staff, as well as some employees who tow planes for the airlines Swissport services.

The workers rejected a contract proposal from Swissport by a 95 per cent margin, Badial told reporters. He scoffed at the notion that Swissport said it was the final offer.

“I’ve heard that many times before in my career as a labour unionist and I assure you eventually I will get a call,” he said.

“We’re certainly open to meeting with the company, sitting down and negotiating a collective agreement, but at the end of the day we’re going to wait.”

The union says Swissport is attempting to impose a three-year wage freeze on the majority of the workers, require staff to work a minimum of 30 hours a week to qualify for full benefits, and is seeking the right to change schedules with 96 hours advance notice.

“We tried our best to reach an acceptable agreement with the company. Swissport just wasn’t interested,” said Badial.

“Sadly, the company is insisting on forcing a bad deal on workers.”

Workers will be picketing at the airport but Badial said they would not interfere with passengers trying to catch planes.

“Our fight is not with the general public, it’s with Swissport management and we’re not here to delay any sort of flights or anything like that,” he said.

Some of the airlines serviced by Swissport also said they were prepared if workers walked off the job.

Air Transat said it was taking measures to ensure none of its flights would be delayed if a strike occurs. British Airways said it had a contingency plan and would continue to operate all its flights.

WestJet, which like Air Canada does not work with Swissport, said it was aware of the situation and advised passengers to arrive early for their flights to avoid delays.

Pierre Payette, Swissport Canada’s vice president of operations, said the company has bargained in good faith throughout contract talks. It also put out a memo to employees Tuesday, asking them to vote in favour of the company’s final offer.

“We remain hopeful that there will be a positive outcome when employees vote today as our offer is fair to all parties,” Payette said in a statement issued earlier Thursday.

The union, however, has described Swissport’s contract as unfair to its workers. It has also taken issue with the company’s decision to hire 250 temporary workers last May.

The union filed a complaint with the Canadian Industrial Relations Board over that matter, alleging the temporary workers are poorly trained and have been involved in multiple accidents over the past few months.

Swissport said it “categorically denies” those allegations.

The last collective agreement expired on July 23, 2017.

Brennan Doherty, The Canadian Press

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