by Stephanie Findlay, Lesley Ciarula Taylor, and Alyshah Hasham
A sarcastic exchange between Air Canada employees and federal labour minister Lisa Raitt was all it took to set off a nation-wide wildcat strike.
Raitt was walking through Toronto Pearson International Airport Thursday evening when three Air Canada ground workers began heckling her.
“Workers started clapping and saying, ‘Thanks for taking our right to strike,’” said ramp worker Geoff Ward.
The trio was slapped with a three-day suspension. Ultimately, 37 employees received some kind of penalty.
By 10:30 pm, the ground workers, members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), were banding together for a brazen wildcat which would last 13 hours.
Employees in Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec City followed in solidarity, throwing Air Canada’s domestic flight schedule into chaos for the day.
It’s a confrontation nine years in the making. To keep the airline from bankruptcy, unions have agreed for their membership to take pay cuts, delayed pension payments, salary freezes and layoffs.
Today, the company is faring better, but the relationship between management and employees is battered by chronic negotiations, government intervention and talk of a discount airline.
As of Friday evening, the peace between Raitt and the union was tenuous.
“We encourage the parties to resolve this internal dispute, return to work and restore the confidence to the travelling public,” said a statement released by Raitt’s office.
“We’re making our members fully aware that if they decide to walk off the job and protest anything they could be fired,” said IAMAW spokesman Bill Trbovich.
“As it stands right now everyone is back to work with the exception of three guys who were suspended last night,” he said.
“I hesitate to say everything is back to normal.”
Air Canada has been plagued by labour troubles for the past year. The airline and its pilots and mechanics have been in a bitter contract feud that recently prompted the federal government to step in with legislation banning strikes or lockouts at the airline.
Ottawa also had to intervene in contract disputes involving the airline’s flight attendants and its customer service agents.
Air Canada’s stock price remained stable at 82 cents a share, but S&P placed the airline on credit watch with negative implications. The rating agency worried about labour disruption and the possibility Air Canada would be on the hook for severance packages for laid off Aveos employees.
Those booking flights also said the company took a hit.
Travel agent Maria Stenardo booked an April flight for a client whose only request was: “not Air Canada.”
Stenardo, of Etobicoke’s Belview Travel Services, says they are reluctant to book Air Canada flights until the labour dispute is resolved.
“We like Air Canada…but we just wish they’d fix it once and for all, for both parties,” she said.
More than 200 Air Canada flights in and out of Pearson International Airport and dozens more flights in and out of Montreal’s Pierre Trudeau International Airport and the Quebec City and Vancouver airports were hit by the walkouts.
“Lisa Raitt came on one of our flights. Got heckled…Entire ramp walked out at YYZ (Pearson),” said a text received by one striker Thursday night shortly after 10 p.m.
“Corporate security was trying to provoke us,” said baggage worker Pascal Leroux, 43. “The reaction was heavy-handed.”
It turned ugly. An Air Canada customer service employee was spat on by an angry passenger who had been swearing at the picket line.
Police moved in and the spitter came back shortly afterwards to apologize, a man who identified himself as the Air Canada employee’s husband said.
“The public doesn’t understand. They think we’re overpaid monkeys,” said ramp worker Randy Hale.
Striking ground workers were circulating a document explaining their wildcat.
“The use of forced overtime and the systematic and persistent discipline of employees without due process with the heavy-handed tactics they use to intimidate and demoralize the workforce must cease.
“We want a ruling from the CIRB (Canadian Industrial Relations Board) on whether or not we are an essential service.”
Airport workers belonging to the CAW and CUPE unions joined the strikers with signs. A purple bus belonging to CUPE 966 arrived at midmorning with President’s Choice chocolate chip cookies and water.
One customer service worker said she was there because the suspensions “were the icing on the cake. The meat and potatoes of it is that our right to strike has been stripped away.”
The Government of Canada was opposed to the strike, threatening to enforce fines of up to $1,000 a day for employees and $100,000 for the union, IAMAW.
Though most wildcat strikers were working by noon, about a dozen others remained outside. The cluster of militants booed as workers walked through the terminal.
“We’re not going back to work until we get a promise from Air Canada at the negotiating table,” said ground worker Sean Goveas. “The actual issues haven’t been addressed. We won’t go back if any of us are disciplined.”
At Pearson, about 50 people lined up in front of the Tim Hortons counter as stranded passengers clogged Terminal 1.
Sitting nearby was federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, whose Toronto to Sudbury flight was cancelled. He called it “regrettable” that passengers were inconvenienced.
Jane Halas’s Vancouver to Ottawa flight stranded her in Toronto en route to visit a sick mother-in-law.
“I think they should be fired. I won’t be flying Air Canada anymore. I’ll be flying WestJet.”
Soon after the job action began, many passengers said they had no idea where their luggage was, or how they were going to get to their destinations. One passenger described the situation at the airport as “a zoo.”
Many people had to leave flights already on the tarmac until management was able take over some baggage handling duties and allow the delayed flights to continue.
In order to facilitate changes to travel plans, Air Canada has revised its ticketing policy for customers booked on flights until Sunday March 25, 2012. Those wishing to rebook can do so free of charge until the last day of April.
Later in the day, an Occupy group briefly set up camp in Lisa Raitt’s Milton office. A Facebook group calling for her resignation also popped up.
The wildcat may be over, but some say the repercussions will linger — at the customer’s expense.
Fred Lazar, an economist at York University’s Schulich School of Business and long-time airline observer, says it would be optimistic to expect smooth sailing when flying on Air Canada.
“Just because you go back to work doesn’t mean you’ll be working all that hard,” he said.
“I think some people will feel ‘why should I care about the customer if my employer doesn’t care about me?’”
*note: with files from Josh Rubin and The Canadian Press. Original article here.