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Not on the Radar

Porter Airline Refuelers Strike Hits 3rd month

by Geordie Gwalgen Dent

Workers on Strike PHOTO Megan Kinch
Workers on Strike PHOTO Megan Kinch

Toronto - Blocking traffic, arguing with police and blowing on vuvuzelas might sound like your standard strike activity. But's for a small union on its first strike, it can be a daunting task.

COPE 343, a union of Porter Airline refuelers who have been on strike for 3 months, spent a couple of hours today trying to make things hectic at Porter's Billy Bishop airport.  Approximately 30 strikers and their supporters held up traffic to the airport, passed out flyers and were negotiating the presence of around 20 bike police trying to stop them from labour action.

But it's something they've only been able to do every "now and again."

James Taylor, a picket-line coordinator with COPE, says the labour action has been difficult.  "We're only able to do this today because we have enough people.  We normally can't [be out here] because we only have 20 people on strike…the police usually push us off right away"

Porter workers have been on strike since January mainly for safety and wage reasons.  They have outlined a number of examples of unsafe work conditions while noting that they have some of the lowest wages in their industry.  Workers interviewed by the Toronto Media Coop say that safety has been compounded by high turnover in staff, which has lead to poor training.  

So far the case has generated limited media attention and the airline has not engaged the media much.  They've quietly reached terms with other unions while promoting expansion of the airport and buying planes.  A number of residents have voiced concerns with proposals to bring jet planes near the downtown core, with even the mayor chiming in.

In response to the strike, Taylor says that the Toronto Port Authority has quietly been very aggressive in terms of suppressing picket activity. Taylor and COPE 343 staff representative Mary Stalteri were arrested "for handing out leaflets the other day," he said.  Both were on the sidewalk outside the terminal at the time.

Because of police interference, the union has relied heavily on strike support from a host of unions, the larger of which began helping out in February.  

Canadian Auto Workers from Pearson Airport and Ontario Federation of Labour members come down to support them on the picket lines while donations from the Catholic Teachers and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation have provided donations along with a host of other active rank and file members who've supported them from day one.

"That's what we need," says Taylor, "People on the lines."  

While the strike itself is standard by all accounts, the details beneath the surface outline a number of the issues facing Canadian Labour issues today.

Porter has Conservative connections: recently maligned Conservative senator and former conservative-journalist Pamela Wallin sits on their board of directors.  Like a number of companies tangled in labour action, the airline is heavily invested in by by prominent pension funds including the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System.  Ironically, representatives of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Canadian Autoworkers sit on the OMERS board.

A COPE 343 refueler who wished to remain anonymous for fear of future retribution, stated that for all the workers it's not only their first time on strike, but their first time in a union.  

"It's tough to be on strike," he said.  "There's a lot of uncertainty.  You'd much rather be working and have the security."

According to workers on the picket lines, a number of them didn't believe the strike would last this long.  "A few scabs crossed the line…a day before we went on strike one guy was made into management," they said.  Without defection from their rank-and-file members, a number of workers  believed that the strike would have been over much sooner.

Since then the Toronto Port Authority has tried to crack down on picket activity through a court injunction seeking to prevent the union from any on-site activity except for 3 picketers outside the terminal handing out leaflets.  This has forced the union to concentrate on secondary pickets that focus on investors and suppliers to the airline.

Taylor says the activities of the court are part of a broader trend with airlines, pointing to the Pearson Airport Strike in 2012.  "[Federal Labour Minister] Lisa Raitt shut that strike down," he said.  "The only reason the Conservatives haven't shut us down is because we're small."

Negotiations are not progressing well and only a few conversations have been had after 3 months of strike activity.  But Taylor says that the airline is more concerned with busting the union than with saving money.

"They've spent more on replacement workers so far than for what we've asked for," he said.

The reason the airport has dug in? "We're the first Porter union to go on strike and the second one to organize."

Though they have run up against significant difficulties, the workers are not close to backing down anytime soon.  "Those of us here are very tight," says one of the workers on the picket lines.  "We're in it for the long haul."

"Much of the support from the other unions has given a certain buoyancy to our spirits.  We wouldn't have made it this far without it."

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