Dealing with intransigence: Why the strike at St. John’s airport is no closer to ending, by Robyn Benson

As we mark the six-month anniversary of the St. John’s airport strike, growing concerns about the impact of this strike on the pending tourism season are not misplaced.

Local journalist Gerry Phelan provided a good reminder of this important fact in his recent Telegram commentary urging an end to the strike.

Where he’s mistaken, though, is in his suggestion that blame can be equally distributed.

The truth is that the airport authority’s management ideology is at the centre of their inability to achieve a settlement.

Not telling the truth

The airport is being dishonest with the public by trying to make a business case for what are actually ideological demands.

The airport authority has used this round of negotiations as a scheme to seek concessions.

Take contracting out.

The airport authority is trying to carve out bargaining unit work into areas of exemption.

They are calling these exemptions “buckets,” lord knows why. They want to insert these “buckets” into the collective agreement so they’ll be able to contract out large amounts of what would normally be unionized work whenever they want.

Removing the union

Basically, the St. John’s airport is trying to remove the union from the workplace, to negotiate us out of existence.

The union negotiating team went as far as proposing to create a committee to review airport authority requests to contract out. The airport authority rejected
that proposal.

They appear willing to settle for nothing less than total power.

The general public should be concerned here.

Contracting out stands to diminish the quality of work performed at the airport all the while asking Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to sell their skilled labour for far less than it is worth.

Why is the airport authority so obsessed with achieving concessions from its workers when – by its own admission – it is growing and is more successful than ever?

And why is it saying it needs to be competitive, when it is the only show in town?

Economy strong

Just last week economist Wade Locke said our province is expected to stay vibrant and healthy for the next 20 years.

This bodes well for the airport, so why not its employees too?

The core problem lies in the airport authority’s cost-cutting, profit-seeking approach to running what is essentially a public service.

Remember, the St. John’s airport is a not-for-profit. Its bottom line is supposed to be the public, not profit.

Recent work by researchers such as Donald Savoie, the Canada research chair in administration and governance at the Universit√© de Moncton, helps us understand where this employer is coming from.

Government as business

An article in last week’s Ottawa Citizen on Savoie’s latest book explains his argument that efforts to impose business-like reforms on public service workplaces have created a bloated and overpaid bureaucracy which wastes resources “administering,” while at the same time cutting back from front-line workers who actually provide the services and do the work.

This is exactly the approach the airport authority is trying to impose.

As the Ottawa Citizen article observes “the New Public Management (NPM) measures that came into vogue 30 years ago have failed and even backfired.

Those measures … were designed to make the public service run like a business (and) … have largely been discredited.”

Nowhere is this more evident than at the St. John’s airport, where 35 vacant positions desperately need to be filled.

Remaining employees are expected to work harder to cover the gaps.

And now on top of that, workers are expected to accept concessions.

Strike drags on

Our passengers and communities have had to suffer the consequences of an ideologically driven management for six months.

It’s time for St. John’s airport to take its concessions off the table, to rebuild the relationships it has broken, and to make the airport the gateway to our province it’s supposed to be. Our workers are ready.

When will the airport authority be?

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Robyn Benson is national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

The Telegram, Letters, Friday, March 15, 2013, p. A7