Toronto Airport Teamsters Strike

PearsonAirportSince July 27, 700 members of Teamsters Local 419 have been on strike at Toronto’s Pearson International airport. They are in dispute with Swissport, which services some 30 airlines including Air Transat, British Airways and Sunwing. The workers are baggage handlers, cargo handlers, cabin cleaners and other ground staff, and they also tow airplanes. The workers voted by 95% to reject the company’s initial offer. On August 23, that mandate was massively reinforced when the members voted by 98% to reject the company’s subsequent offer which, according to the union, was hardly any different from the original one. 

Tim Heffernan, Socialist Alternative Toronto, talked to Harjinder Badial, Vice President of Local 419

SA: What are the issues?

HB: We’ve been in bargaining since March 3. The company, Swissport, came in and they said “look, we’ve had a lot of turnover last year in 2016.” They had 399 employees quit and they felt that the rates of the Collective Agreement (CA) were too low and they wanted to address that in these negotiations. We thought that was great, you don’t often hear that from employers these days

SA: So it was the employer who raised the questions of low wages?

HB: Yeah, on the first day (of negotiations). They said we couldn’t attract people and even if we could attract people, we couldn’t keep them because the rates were so low. Yet when we got their final offer on the July 24 it certainly didn’t reflect what they were talking about in negotiations. It was much lower, closer to minimum wage.  There is a perception if you work at Pearson you make a ton of money. It is unfortunate as a lot of the jobs here are minimum wage.  There is progression up the pay scales, but it takes a very long time to get to these higher rates.

SA: What is the variation of wage rates?

HB: Right now, the starting rate here at Swissport is $11.60 under the old collective agreement.  The company came back with $14.00 which in a few months from now is going to be the minimum wage.* So it doesn’t resolve the problem the company was trying to address.  Some people thought we were trying to get a massive wage increase, but we just wanted something that was fair.  Our colleagues at Air Canada, working as ramp leads (which is a safety sensitive job), make anywhere from $26 to $28 an hour – at the top end of the scale.

SA: Doing similar work to your members?

HB: Identical work. Our members at the higher end of the scale make $20 and change. It varies quite a bit because we’ve had two Collective Agreements in operation after a merger of two Bargaining Units that came together. There was a company called Service Air that was purchased by Swissport and we had a vote in which we were successful. But we still had two CAs and the challenge in this round of bargaining was to bring those two together

SA: Was one CA superior to another in terms of wages and benefits?

HB: It varied.  One had good things. The other had good things. We were looking for general improvements. What the company came back with was certainly troubling. Another issue about the benefits the company introduced for all employees – an “hours requirement”, so you have to complete a certain number of hours to qualify for benefits for the following year. When employers introduce that kind of language, it is to limit the participation of the employees in the benefits program. So we told them we were not interested in it but they stuck to their guns.

SA: You mean they would use that provision to not call workers in to work if they thought a worker was ready to pass the bar that would entitle them to benefits.

HB: That’s a possibility. I’ll give you an example. Our cabin services department – in the busy period, workers will get 30-35 hours a week (not all of them) but in the slow periods, instead of laying workers off, where they would make more money on EI, the company will give them 8 to 12 hours a week. It is hard to sustain any kind of income with those kinds of hours so that a lot of our members have two or three other jobs as well

SA: One of the demands I’m hearing at this protest is “respect”. In what ways is the employer not respecting you, apart from not making a decent offer on wages and benefits?

HB: In the last 18 months there has been a new administration – with all the mergers and stuff, people have been really mistreated. I’ll give you an example. A few weeks ago, the company hired security guards to sit in the lunch room for 24 hours simply to watch the employees – there was no threats, no issues but they just wanted them there. Our members, they go to take a lunch and it’s extremely busy; it’s not well coordinated by the employer, our members are missing their lunches or taking lunch at the end of their shift. And if they decide to take a 10 to 15 minute break to eat their lunch, they are being told to get on the flight right then and if they don’t comply, we’ve had members written up, suspended, even terminated for such things. They don’t treat our members with respect and when I say that, I mean they think they are at a very high level and all our members are at the bottom. They don’t talk to them like human beings. That’s the sad reality of it.

SA: And all the people here are in Teamsters 419?

HB: When you’re doing something like this, its extraordinary. It is awesome that everybody got together, all the locals, the different unions in Pearson, even outside of Pearson. We’ve had great support.

SA: I’ve been involved with the fight for $15 struggle, and I came here a couple of times tabling/petitioning.  The unity of the different unions was impressive. What are the different job categories in Teamsters 419?

HB: We have different departments, we have ramp attendants that do baggage handling, we tow aircrafts, ** we also do cabin cleaning. One key component is weight and balance and operations. Those folks are critical to flight safety. They make sure the contents of the aircraft are put in the right spot, that the aircraft is fully balanced for take off and landing.  We provide all sorts of essential paper work for the flight crew before takeoff.

SA: So there are different rates of pays for different job categories?

HB: The top rate is $22 and change. Again if you look at colleagues in the other airlines, they are paid much higher than this.

SA: What’s the position regarding scabs?

HB: Back in May, the company told us that they were going to bring in agency workers (i.e. temporary workers recruited from temp agencies). They blamed it on two things:  summer rush and the fact that they couldn’t retain people.

SA: So irrespective of the prospect of a strike, they were going to bring in extra people that could function as reserves in the case of a strike?

HB: That is what they said, but we went to the Federal Labour Board to file unfair labour practices but the company still brought the temporary workers into work. The last day we were in negotiations on July 24, we asked the company point blank “what’s the plan with these agency workers?” The answer was that “once we have a contract, those workers are gone.” In the media, they have claimed that these workers are only there for their contingency plans. We’ve filed further charges and we’re going to pursue them legally.


* The Ontario government has announced that the provincial minimum wage will be increasing to $14 an hour on January 1, 2018 and to $15 by January 2019.

** On August 5, there was a ground incident at Pearson involving the clipping of wings of two airplanes. Harbinder suggested that temporary ground workers hired by Swissport Canada Handling, the employer of the striking staff, could be to blame for the incident. He said, “We know the company has been hiring more temp workers, giving them two hours of training and putting them on live flights.”