Labor Unions Straddle Both Sides Of Refueler Strike

March 27, 2013
Strike pits union refuelers against pension fund run for for the public sector worker's union

The strike against Porter Airlines in downtown Toronto is very much a modern labor dispute. It is low key and almost invisible. It pits unions against themselves. It is also one where the cards are conspicuously stacked against the strikers.

The strike has been going on now for more than two months. But thanks to the Toronto Port Authority - Porter's longtime ally in the Toronto Island airport enterprise - pickets are kept far away from passengers. So far away, it's hard to find them at all.

Indeed, if pickets try to hand out leaflets to passengers entering the airport ferry terminal at the foot of Bathurst St., the Port Authority has them arrested.

That's what happened to James Taylor two weeks ago. He and another unionist were charged with trespass for leafleting on the sidewalk outside the publicly owned terminal.

So strikers end up picketing in a hidden parking lot off to the side.

The Porter dispute is a telling one. The 22 striking fuel handlers are new-style workers. They are young. They are not paid much (starting wages are $12 an hour). And their employer doesn't expect them to stay long.

The longest-serving Porter fuel handler says he has been with the company five years. Most stay one or two years and then move on.

Even more telling is the fact that, in this fight, labor is on both sides of the dispute.

On Sunday, delegates from a Canadian labor Congress convention marched with the strikers to demonstrate union solidarity.

But at the same time, one of the key investors in privately held Porter Aviation Holdings Inc. is the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), the pension fund for unionized public sector workers.

When I finally caught up with strikers Monday, they weren't picketing Porter at all. Instead, most had set up their signs outside OMERS headquarters on University Ave., where they were trying, with degrees of success, to embarrass their union comrades.

Representatives of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and the Canadian Autoworkers all sit on the OMERS board.

What's even weirder is that OMERS handles the pension funds of 1,189 members of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union, which represents Porter fuel handlers. So at one level, the Porter workers are on strike against their own union.

This, of course, is the great irony of pension funds. Employees struggle to win pensions. But once won, the pension funds that are established invariably follow the profit-maximizing rules of the financial marketplace. Which in many cases means these funds are used against unions.

The demands of the Porter fuel handlers are simple. Yes, they want more than the 25 cents an hour the company is offering some. As striker Nadim Jaffer explains, more money would reduce turnover and make work more secure.

But they also want better safety measures in place.

Ivan Castillo would like to see enough staff employed to ensure the workplace is safe. He fell from a float plane he was fuelling on his own last summer, shortly after he came on staff. He broke both wrists and had to take a streetcar and subway across town to hospital.

Porter didn't speak to the Castillo incident directly. But in an email, a spokesman said the company provides safety training.

Porter's pitch is cool and sophisticated. Its advertising icon is a globe-trotting raccoon. Its board of directors includes celebrity frequent-flyer Senator Pamela Wallin.

But the airline's labor relations are old-style, based on employing a "flexible" workforce that is willing to give its all without expecting a great deal in return.

Porter ground crew workers in Ottawa discovered this when they were unionized two years ago. Bargaining didn't go well. After more than year, their employer remained obdurate.

In the end, the Ottawa workers accepted whatever Porter was willing to give them - against the advice of their union.

It may have been a bad deal for them. But it probably helped support other workers' pension funds.

The contradictions are very 21st century.

Thomas Walkom's column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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