On August 23, the more than 700 members of Teamsters Local 419 voted over 98% to reject the latest contract offer by the multinational Swissport. These brave union members, many of whom are workers of colour, newcomers, and – certainly among cabin cleaners – women, have been on strike since July 27. These men and women provide crucial services to more than 30 airlines and are essential to the safe and efficient operation of flight service at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Canada’s largest workplace. Although these workers are federally regulated, so most provisions of Bill 148 would not automatically apply, the federal law establishes the minimum wage as the one prevailing in the province where the work is done. If adopted, Ontario’s Bill 148 would increase the minimum wage to $14 by January 1, 2018 and to $15 by January 1, 2019 for federally-regulated workers in Ontario.
In this sense, Swissport’s demands for concessions is related to the broader Fight for $15 and Fairness. As reported to Socialist Worker, among the many offensive provisions of Swissport’s “offer,” was a maximum wage of $14 an hour for certain employees – a move that would have capped the wages of many union members after years of service. In this diabolical move, Swissport hoped to transform a higher minimum wage floor into a wage ceiling for union members. Instead of a working class victory, these Teamsters would have experienced Bill 148 as a truncheon used against them, which would, in turn, weaken class solidarity and exacerbate divisions between union and non-union workers.
Instead, all workers at Pearson should be paid at least $15 an hour or more right now – and any future increases in the provincial minimum wage should accrue to all workers in the collective agreement, regardless of whether they are at or above the official minimum wage. As we saw with food services workers at York University, this kind of demand could galvanize labour and community support, especially since two-thirds of Ontarians already believe all workers should be earning at least $15 an hour. Swissport is also demanding cuts in benefits and concessions on scheduling, even though the current contract provisions are modest – just four days notice of shifts are required. (For provincially regulated workers, Bill 148 would provide all workers with the right to refuse shifts assigned with less than four days notice and employers would have to pay workers for at least three hours if employees are expected to be on call or if shifts are cancelled at the last minute.)
Clearly, Swissport is giving the single finger salute to workers, public safety and even pending provincial laws. In so doing, Swissport is deliberately endangering the lives of the temporary agency workers they are using as replacement workers, since they have neither the training nor the experience to fully protect themselves – or the public. This situation underscores the way in which employers treat temporary agency workers (themselves often newcomers and workers of colour) as disposable, and singles them out for the most dangerous jobs. Injury rates among temporary agency workers are notoriously high. Already, Teamsters Local 419 has reported numerous and serious workplace injuries and accidents, including a near-miss when a temp agency worker was almost “ingested into the engine.” Health and safety is obviously a crucial issue and this strike is as much about passenger safety as it is about workers’ rights.
Workers have power
Swissport is a huge, profitable multinational corporation that is drawing a line in the sand at the YYZ. At the same time, Pearson International Airport is a key economic hub and the workers there have enormous economic power. Pearson is run by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, a not-for-profit entity established by the federal government. That body has the power to set minimum labour standards as a condition of granting operating rights to companies doing business at Pearson we can demand that the GTAA – and other airport authorities across Canada – do exactly that.
We cannot allow these workers to fight alone. We all have a stake in the outcome of this strike. It is urgent that we show Swissport – and the GTAA – what a united, working-class movement can really do.
This piece was first published by socialist.ca