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

Let’s be honest. 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 now 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 that the workers who make this province prosper receive a fair share of that prosperity. It’s about ensuring we invest that 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% 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 – and travel to our province – 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% 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% gap in firefighters’ earnings between St. John’s and Halifax Airports. A 39% 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 – sometimes through retirement, but sometimes because they know their work will be respected more and paid better by other employers. And these highly trained workers are not being replaced. For instance, the airport is now down to one heavy equipment mechanic. That mechanic – and the equipment they operate – is 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 first-class province does not demand concessions from their employees. The Airport Authority is trying to impose a two-tier system of benefits. With a strong provincial economy, there is no excuse to treat newer and younger workers in a second-rate fashion. Some of our members have dedicated over 20 years of their lives to this workplace. That deserves respect. But 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 plan benefits. They want “flexibility” – a buzzword for cheaper, unstable jobs.

What do we want?

To be treated fairly, with respect and with dignity. We’re fighting to maintain the working conditions that have made the St. John’s Airport the great facility it is, and we’re fighting to be treated with just as much respect as our counterparts at other airports in the region.

By demanding concessions, the Airport Authority is denying the hard-working members of UCTE 90916 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 getting ready now for the approaching winter, 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. Our economy has been growing at one of the fastest rates in Canada. Corporate 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.

Our future will be defined by whether or not we share our province’s recent prosperity fairly, and whether we use it to create quality jobs and quality lives for our current – and future – generations.

Do we want to cut corners on our future?

Jeannie Baldwin
Regional Executive Vice-President
Public Service Alliance of Canada

The Telegram (St. John’s) | Editorial, Thursday, September 27, 2012, p. A6