TORONTO — The heckling of Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt by frustrated Air Canada workers snowballed into a wildcat strike that plunged Canada’s busiest airport into travel chaos on Friday.
Three ground workers at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport were suspended after Raitt was heckled and followed while walking through the airport, said union spokesman Bill Trbovich. When word of the suspensions spread their colleagues staged an illegal walkout, prompting the firing of 37 workers, he added.
The unrest quickly spread to airports in Quebec City, Montreal and Vancouver.
It ended some 12 hours after it began when an arbitrator ruled there would be no reprisals against the workers — including the 37 — if they returned to their jobs, Trbovich said.
But the airline warned the strike’s effects could last into the weekend due to the throngs of passengers looking to rebook flights.
Trbovich said a group of workers followed Raitt out to her car late Thursday after clapping and heckling the minister, who has angered workers by bringing in back-to-work legislation and sending their contract dispute with the airline to arbitration.
Spokeswoman Ashley Kelahear said Raitt didn’t make any comments about the workers or speak to them, despite being “followed” and “harassed.”
While he didn’t witness the incident, “three people got suspended and that started the whole ball rolling, so something must have happened,” Trbovich said.
Raitt’s office said Friday the minister didn’t file a complaint with police or with Air Canada. The minister wasn’t travelling with RCMP, but at the request of Air Canada security, Peel region police escorted Raitt to her car, they added.
The airline got an injunction against the striking workers and expects the “unions will obey the law,” said spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick, who declined to comment on the union’s assertion that workers were suspended and fired.
“The main concern for Air Canada right now, though, is to get its customers moved as quickly as possible and we’re working on that,” he said.
Some customers would be unable to fly Friday because of the lasting effects of the strike, Fitzpatrick added.
At least 80 Air Canada flights were cancelled and some 83 delayed on Friday, according to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority’s website, causing massive backups that frustrated passengers and led some to lash out against the protesters. Some vowed to think twice before flying with the airline in the future, while others hissed expletives at the 200 or so workers gathered at Pearson’s Terminal One.
“It’s a complete mess … and I don’t think I will take Air Canada ever again,” said Mira Hrudka, whose trip to visit a sick cousin in Thunder Bay, Ont., was jeopardized by flight cancellations.
“I’ve flown every airline on Earth … and Air Canada is very disappointing. And here (the workers) are, they’re cheering, and we are stuck here.”
Another passenger, Aaron Huizing, was heading back to his home in Ottawa from Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic when the walkout began.
“I say the same thing every time: ’I’m never going to deal with Air Canada again,”’ he said. “Maybe next time I’ll listen to myself.”
Still, others blamed the minister for their travel headaches.
“I’m a little ticked,” Mara Ciampa said while waiting at Montreal’s Trudeau airport in the hopes of getting home to Windsor, Ont.
“I just found out this out today because my husband told me when I called home what had happened so, (Raitt’s) to blame as far as I’m concerned.”
Trbovich said the union didn’t sanction or condone the strike, and cautioned workers they could be fired or fined for taking the illegal action.
Few heeded the warnings. Some continued chanting even after the strike was declared over, though the crowd petered out shortly after noon.
Trbovich said emotions have been running high after the government took away their right to strike.
About a dozen protesters from various labour groups occupied Raitt’s Milton, Ont., constituency office Friday in support of the workers.
The carrier issued a statement apologizing to its affected passengers and urging those with travel plans to check the status of their flights online. Passengers whose flights have been cancelled will be permitted to rebook without penalty.
Air Canada has been plagued with labour troubles over the last year.
The airline and its pilots and mechanics have been in a bitter contract feud that prompted the federal government to recently step in with legislation banning strikes or lockouts at the airline.
Raitt had insisted the government had to act to protect the national economy.
Ottawa also had to intervene in contract disputes involving the airline’s flight attendants and its customer service agents.
— With files from Peter Ray in Montreal