Now well into the second month of their strike, the airplane re-fuelers who work for Porter Airlines at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport have a quickly expanding base of allies helping them push forward their campaign for better pay and safety on the job.
They'll be joined by supporters this Thursday, February 28 at a solidarity picket sponsored by the Ontario Federation of Labour.
The 22 striking workers walked off the job on January 10 after reaching a stalemate in negotiations for their first collective agreement. They had formed a union just last year, with the Canadian Office and Professional Employees union (COPE). The issues they brought to the table centred on safety and pay.
The list of unsafe practices and working conditions -- some of them illegal -- which the re-fuelers say have been par for the course at Porter Fixed Base Operations (FBO) is long and troubling. It includes:
- teams constantly working short-staffed, forcing workers being to do tasks they are not trained to do, perform fuel checks unsafely and back up trucks with no spotter;
- people working out on the tarmac alone, with no means of communication, on overnight shifts in the dead of winter;
- management providing gloves so flimsy that jet fuel would eat through the fabric;
- lockers full of hazardous chemical products with no labels at all;
- and fuel leaks being ignored by management.
"We are consistently put in situations where we have to violate safety regulations in order to accomplish our routine duties," the workers warned in a letter they wrote to management last spring, before they'd joined the union.
Employees would also be working for hours on end, sometimes three quarters of the day, at bases with no toilet, washing or eating facilities, according to the list of health and safety concerns compiled by the union.
Many of those concerns seem to flow directly from the constant staff turnover at Porter FBO. The union reports that few employees last longer than a year or two doing this work. The stressful conditions and low pay -- $13 an hour on average -- have provided little incentive for workers to stick around.
At the negotiating table, the company couldn't realistically refuse the workers' requests aimed at bringing operations in line with basic health and safety regulations. But when it came to pay, Porter's offer was so meagre -- a raise of 25 cents an hour for the lowest-paid group of workers, and a pay freeze for the rest -- the re-fuelers took it as an insult and an unwillingness to bargain in good faith. With management showing no signs at all of budging, they walked out.
They were shocked when Porter announced that flights would not be affected at all by the strike. Replacement workers were swiftly brought in. In a workplace already racked with safety problems, that's alarming, said the union. How can replacement crew learn in a week what it took the now-unionized workers at least one month to learn?
"Workers are concerned that the replacement workers being hired or transferred by Porter will not have the skills necessary to ensure the safety of the flying public," wrote union organizer Trish Qualtrough on the COPE website.
Since then, flights continue, with the strikers and their supporters urging the public to stop flying Porter until it comes back to the bargaining table and deals fairly with workers.
Earlier this month, the union approached Porter about returning to negotiations. They were told the company's original offer hadn't changed.
Community and labour groups have been joining the strikers in solidarity marches and pickets of growing size, with support coming from some surprising corners. On February 10, the strikers held a community BBQ and rally with the support of Toronto Pig Save, a group that holds weekly vigils outside slaughterhouses in the GTA.
A second solidarity rally took place on February 16. This Thursday's OFL-supported event promises to be the largest yet.
That will be followed by a town hall meeting on March 1, organized by the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly, where Porter workers, COPE representatives, a university professor and local community representatives will speak.
The cause has also gone global, with the widely-read labour news website LabourStart picking up the re-fuelers' demands for a living wage and safe workplace as one of their featured campaigns.
Lori Theresa Waller is rabble.ca's labour reporter.