Strike begins for 150 Winnipeg airport workers

Workers at Winnipeg's airport hit the picket lines early Monday morning after collective bargaining negotiations with the airports authority fell apart.

Picket lines set up on the arrivals level at James Armstrong Richardson International Airport

Employees walk the picket line on Monday morning outside the Winnipeg airport's arrivals level. (Daniel Igne-Jajalla/CBC)

Workers at Winnipeg's airport hit the picket lines early Monday morning after collective bargaining negotiations with the airports authority fell apart.

The strike, which involves 150 employees — duty managers, administrative workers, various tradespeople, IT workers, airfield maintenance and labourers — began at 3 a.m.

The picket lines have been set up on the arrivals level at the James Armstrong Richardson International Airport.

"Our fight isn't with the passengers, so while we are asking people to respect the picket line and make other travel arrangements and use other airports, we are not restricting passengers coming into the airport," said Marianne Hladun, regional executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

The Winnipeg Airports Authority is trying to assure travelers that it's business as usual, despite the picket lines.

It tweeted Monday morning that it does not expect significant impacts.

The workers, who are also represented by the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, have been without a contract since June 30, 2016.

"The Winnipeg Airports Authority has failed its employees in this process, both in the way it treats them in the workplace and in the manner in which it has failed so far to negotiate a fair collective agreement with the union's negotiating team despite bargaining since last October," Teresa Eschuk, UCTE regional vice-president, said in a news release.

The unions and Winnipeg Airports Authority have been negotiating for seven consecutive days, with the assistance of a federally-appointed mediator. But at 6 p.m. Sunday night, the airports authority tabled its final offer and walked away, said Marianne Hladun, PSAC regional executive vice-president.

"We were prepared to stay at the [bargaining] table until 3 a.m., which was our 72-hour strike notice. When we didn't hear from [the WAA], our members hit the picket line at 3 a.m. sharp," she said, adding the unions are ready to go back to the bargaining table if the authority is "ready to have some good discussions."

They rejected the airports authority's last offer because it didn't do enough to address the amount of work the authority has been contracting out, bypassing union members, they said.

Hladun said the contracting work has "increased significantly" in the last while.

"This is work that our members could do and you know, they're looking at issuing layoffs to our members. We're saying, 'No, that's not acceptable to us,'" she said.

'False accusations'

 Winnipeg Airports Authority spokesman Tyler MacAfee called those "false accusations," saying the work within the now-expired collective bargaining agreement has never been contracted out.

"We're not contracting out union work," he said. "And the offer that we've put on the table offers no layoffs for employees, so that job security piece is there."

The airports authority has actually increased unionized positions since the new terminal opened in 2011, he said, with a number of jobs that were previously contracted being brought under the scope of the union.

Although the unions have repeatedly stated publicly that the negotiations are not about money, its demands during the mediation process included increases that would cost the airports authority 60 per cent more in wages and benefits over two years, MacAfee said.

"You know, that's something that's not realistic," he said.

"When you look at what's happening in Manitoba right now, with some unions looking at zero per cent [wage increases] and some companies are in layoffs, we thought providing job security for our employees and more wages was something that was going to be positive for them."

In real dollars, the proposed changes would move the salary range for unionized employees from the current range of $25-$56 per hour to $28-$65 per hour, which means the lowest salaried full-time employee would move from $49,000 a year to $54,500 a year, a news release from the airports authority said.

Those at the top of the range would move from $109,000 to more than $126,000 a year. Overtime and shift premiums add to that.

"Our mandate is to operate our airport in a fiscally prudent manner in the best interests of our community," Barry Rempel, WAA president and CEO, said in the news release.

"We respect our employees and value what they contribute to our company every day, which is why we have offered our team more money and guaranteed job security."