Airport strike drags on as high tourism season looms

A strike at the St. John's International Airport is being blamed for the loss of convention business and other headaches as high tourism season looms.
Many of the maintenance and emergency services workers at St. John's International Airport have been on strike since September. (The Canadian Press)

A strike at the St. John's International Airport is being blamed for the loss of convention business and other headaches as high tourism season looms.

About 63 workers including firefighters, maintenance and support staff have walked the picket line for nearly eight months over wages and job security.

"There is one large conference that we know that we have lost because of the airport strike," said Cathy Duke, CEO of Destination St. John's, an agency that plans conventions in the city.

"We'd love to see this resolved for the benefit of everybody involved."

Duke said some labour groups would rather cancel meetings than cross the workers' picket line. The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada nixed its conference last November because of the strike and has pulled out for next November in case it drags on, she said.

That's a loss of 600 delegates and 1,700 hotel room nights plus restaurant, shopping, entertainment and taxi spinoffs that would total about $1.7 million, Duke added.

No new talks planned

A federal mediator decided two months ago not to bring negotiators for the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees Local 90916 back to the table with airport management. There was no progress reached on a settlement at that point, and no new talks are planned.

The airport reports that travel continues to increase through its gates, with a six per cent jump last year to almost 1.5 million passengers.

"They're doing well because of our work and our workers," said bargaining team member Chris Bussey, a firefighter captain at the airport. "We want a share of that."

Requests for an interview with Keith Collins, president and CEO of the St. John's International Airport Authority, weren't answered. But he has said that the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the bargaining agent for the local union, is taking an "inflexible approach."

In a news release in March, Collins said the union has demanded a wage hike of 56 per cent over four years, with 34 per cent of that in the first year retroactive to 2009. Bussey does not dispute that.

The authority has offered an average wage increase of almost 34 per cent over seven years, or 4.8 per cent per year, also retroactive to 2009.

Collins said the union refused to budge on contracting, job security and defined benefit pension plan changes, something Bussey does not dispute.

"These business issues are important to the authority to allow us to manage our airport in a cost-effective manner in the future," Collins said in the release.

Wage gap key issue in strike

Bussey said striking workers earn salaries ranging from $18 an hour to $32 an hour. For firefighters, the wage is about $56,000 a year at the St. John's airport, compared to about $74,000 a year at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport, he said.

But for some of the trades involved in the strike, the wage gap is larger, he said.

Striking workers include essential staff, such as firefighters, who donate part of their earnings to members living on strike pay of $75 a day, Bussey added.

"We're pulling together to make sure no one starves to death," he said. "That contributes both ways for making the strike longer. The employer gets their work done and the airport maintains operations. But in turn, that also helps us fund the strike."

Few people want the strike settled more than Ryan Cleary. For nearly eight months the NDP MP for St. John's South-Mount Pearl has made the three-hour drive to Gander, in all kinds of weather, to fly back and forth to Ottawa rather than cross the picket line.

Last October, he hit a moose in Terra Nova National Park that "rolled over my bonnet (hood), flipped over the windshield and then somersaulted in the air behind me.

"It's the grace of God I wasn't killed."

Physically, Cleary was fine but his vehicle had $8,000 in damages and he no longer drives at night. He says enough is enough.

"This strike has gone on too long."