Striking workers at Winnipeg airport press on into second month
by James Wilt
Almost a month has passed since 150 workers at the Winnipeg International Airport started striking for increased job security.
The members of Public Service Alliance of Canada/Union of Canadian Transportation Employees Local 50600 — which includes electricians, maintenance staff, IT personnel, administrators and other labourers — haven’t had a contract since last summer. Winnipeg Airports Authority and CEO Barry Rempel’s final offer was tabled on the evening of July 23 following a week’s worth of mediated negotiations.
“The main issue here is contracting out,” said Marianne Hladun, the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s prairies regional executive vice president, in an interview with RankandFile.ca.
“As much as they’ve been in the media saying they’re not contracting out, they themselves provided us with a four-page list of contractors doing work at the airport and in fact we even know an electrical contractor who has an office at the airport. Their claims there’s no contracting out is completely false.”
It’s been a hard grind since the start of the strike.
Injunction restricts use of word ‘scab’ on picket line, blocking doors and entrances
Only two days after workers started striking, the Winnipeg Airports Authority (WAA) filed a statement of claim as the first step in seeking a court-ordered injunction on the strikers.
Hladun said that the judge actually reserved his decision for a few days, noting that the judge understood that the injunction was restricting their constitutional right to picket but ruled on certain things “in the interest of safety.”
Some requests by the employer were denied, including strikers not being allowed to videotape and prohibiting striking outside the homes of employers (the judge ruled that a 200 metre radius around a home would create an “adequate buffer” for safety).
But some critical concessions were granted to the employer.
They included the prohibition on picketing in front of doorways and exits, the restriction of strikes to chalk boxes drawn on the pavement, having no more than 12 strikers per chalk box and restricted access to some service gates where contractors enter.
As UCTE president Dave Clark put it in a press release, “the striking workers have been limited to parading in an area the size of a flowerbox so as not to cause any disappointment or distraction to the employer’s operations. That is the whole point of a strike.”
Bizarrely, the injunction also prohibited the use of the word “scab” on the picket line and lumped in the ban with the use of racist and sexist language.
Hladun read out the clause in the interview: “Using any manner of insulting, profane or obscene language or gestures during any picketing including the use of the word ‘scab’ (or similar words) and to pejorative comments pertaining to a person’s religion, race, colour, sex, creed, national or ethnic origins or physical or mental disability.”
She added that if any part of the injunction is found violated then they would be in contempt of court, facing fines and potential imprisonment.
Some Unifor members in Winnipeg for convention crossed picket line
The injunction has had an obvious impact on the potential power of the strike.
Prior to its granting, the picket line appeared to be fairly disruptive, often featuring noisy whistles and a clear sense of “being heard” by passengers. Much of that has been vacuumed out.
Strikers are still showing up every day from 5 AM to 9 PM, long days for such a small local. To be sure, there have been displays of support, such as a rally at the airport on July 28. Manitoba NDP MLA and leadership candidate Wab Kinew has pledged not to cross the picket line. Hladun said that supporters are being encouraged to avoid flying through the airport or using businesses in the airport itself.
But it’s remained a hyper-local action: so much so that some members of the Unifor Canadian Council — which recently had a convention in Winnipeg — weren’t even aware of the strike and crossed the picket line as they didn’t have time to rebook their flight to another airport (Clark called Unifor out on Twitter for this multiple times).
There’s certainly been solidarity expressed by other labour organizations, including the Winnipeg Labour Council. But the strike hasn’t exactly penetrated the public consciousness in the city or across Canada. Meanwhile, the striking workers have been under significant surveillance on site, with a guard or two monitoring each floor and hired personnel videotaping the activities from parked vans.
Entire airport evacuated on Saturday due to malfunctioning equipment
That isn’t to say that it isn’t having impacts.
In early August, Clark of the UCTE said in a press release: “The airport claims that they need the replacement workers and the restrictions on picketing for possible ‘security and safety regulations mandated by law.’ What about poorly trained staff handling and maintaining sensitive equipment at the airport? That is a real and not imaginary safety and security concern.”
On Saturday, the entire airport was evacuated due to malfunctioning equipment that created smoke, which resulted in the delay of 17 planes.
Bruce Bell, an electrician on the airport who’s on strike, told CBC: “It is kind of showing how our management is very much having difficulty trying to do our job without it. They’re struggling and they don’t have the expertise that they should have there. It’s a little scary for everybody.”
Airport authority still hasn’t communicated with union
It’s impossible to ascertain if the wait-and-see approach will work: after all, temperatures will begin to fall in the next few months and make striking even less comfortable.
Chances are that a faster resolution would come with far increased support and militancy from fellow unions and workers, aided by more education and consciousness raising by PSAC (perhaps to the point that Unifor members are at least aware of the strike).
Unfortunately, Manitoba’s major unions appear more interested in fighting lengthy and extremely costly legal battles over recently introduced anti-labour legislation than dedicating resources to better organizing workers for on-the-ground struggles to collectively pressure employers for gains.
At the time of writing, the airport authority and CEO Barry Rempel still hasn’t communicated with the union about reopening negotiations.
If you live or are visiting Winnipeg and would like to volunteer at the picket line, the union requests that people park at the Victoria Inn and check in at strike headquarters inside the hotel. Cars associated with the strike can’t be parked at the airport: instead, someone will drop volunteers off at the line and alert the picket captain.