Thursday, September 27, 2012

St. John's airport strike: Day over when we were 'ashamed' to compare ourselves to other Canadian cities

MP Ryan Cleary (St. John's South-Mount Pearl) speaks with striking workers on the picket line at the St. John's International Airport.

The following letter to the editer is published in today's edition (Sept. 27th) edition of The Telegram:

When you're an island, the airport is pretty damn important.

The sea will always be an integral part of our heritage in Newfoundland and Labrador, but in today’s world, the air is how most of us travel to and from our beautiful island home.

And for almost two weeks, dozens of hard-working employees at the St. John’s International Airport — the people who make this possible — have been on strike.

This strike is about more than just wages.

It’s about a very basic principle that’s important to all of us: fairness.

It’s about ensuring we invest this province’s prosperity in creating decent, quality jobs for current — and future — generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

The provincial economy is hotter than ever, and the airport has experienced unprecedented growth.

The number of seats flying to and from St. John’s has grown by 40 per cent since 1998 — more than four times the average of other Atlantic Canadian airports.

Last year it exceeded revenue projections by hundreds of thousands of dollars and completed the year with an excess of revenues over expenses of $4.3 million.

Not bad for a not-for-profit organization.

But while the airport is booming, the wages and working conditions of many of those who make it possible are not.

In fact, these workers haven’t received a pay raise in four years.

And the wages they do receive are sub-par.

There’s a 52 per cent wage gap between what a light duty operator earns at Halifax Airport (nearly $30/hour) and what they earn at St. John’s (less than $20/hour).

There’s a 31 per cent gap in firefighters’ earnings between St. John’s and Halifax Airports. A 39 per cent gap for heavy equipment mechanics. The list goes on.

Cutting corners and pinching pennies have come at a cost.

Recruitment and retention at the airport have suffered.

This province is already experiencing a skilled labour shortage.

Highly trained workers are leaving. These workers are not being replaced.

The airport is now down to one heavy equipment mechanic.

That mechanic — and the equipment they operate — are all that’s standing between a snowy St. John’s winter and your ability to fly off the island for work or vacation.

Our members are responsible for the safety and functionality of the airport and they will always put safety first.

But when they are understaffed, operations will slow down.

That is no way to become a first-class airport.

It’s no way to become a first-class province, either.

A first-class employer in a firstclass province does not demand concessions from their employees.

The airport authority is trying to impose a two-tier system of benefits.

There is no excuse to treat newer and younger workers in a secondrate fashion.

Some of our members have dedicated over 20 years of their lives to this workplace.

Their children — and all the youth that are graduating and entering the job market — deserve quality jobs and a future at least as good as the one we’ve had.

That’s what we’re fighting for.

The airport authority’s demands will undermine job security, reduce pensions and cut health benefits. They want “flexibility” — a buzzword for cheaper, unstable jobs.

What do we want? To be treated fairly, with respect and with dignity.

By demanding concessions, the airport authority is denying the hard-working union members their fair share of benefits from the airport’s improved performance.

The airport authority is gambling that it can pressure these workers into giving up benefits they currently have.

That’s bad enough.

But it’s also gambling with the entire economy of eastern Newfoundland, which relies on a fully functioning airport.

Our crews need to be training qualified new workers to fill gaps, preparing equipment for the harsh weather months.

The longer it takes for the airport authority to listen to reason, the less prepared we’ll be for the challenges of Newfoundland winter.

The days are over when we were ashamed to compare ourselves to other major Canadian cities. C

orporate profits in this province are through the roof.

And the cost of living is rising rapidly.

These are realities that all of us face. And it’s time we started demanding our due.

Jeannie Baldwin is regional executive vise-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

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