Swissport workers enter new deal with ‘mixed feelings’

by Sara Jaffri

Workers employed with Swissport International Ltd. at Pearson International Airport are entering into a new three-year contract with the company after concluding a tough 11-week long strike in the middle of October.

Tense negotiations

Only 63% of the 700 striking workers, represented by the union Teamsters Local 419, voted in favour of accepting the offer presented to them by Swissport after three rounds of negotiations. The low ‘yes’ vote reflects how many employees may have been willing to continue the strike in protest of Swissport’s attack on workers’ rights until their demands were met.

“Swissport came into negotiations and requested concessions,” said Jason Harvey, a Swissport employee and a member of the Union’s contract bargaining committee. “They came in saying ‘we are taking this and this away’. We asked why, given that these practices have existed for years.”

The new deal consists of minor improvements in wage raises and shift scheduling. While details have not been released, the finalized contract is seen as marginally better than the initial offer put on the table by Swissport. However, it is not everything the workers went on strike for, and poses questions for the future of Swissport’s reputation amongst its employees.

“Feelings are mixed,” said Harjindar Badial, Vice President of Teamsters Local 419. “There is lack of trust with the employer that’s going to take a long time, even months or years to rebuild.”

A strategic attack on unions

Swissport workers were forced to strike to resist the well-prepared attack by the company on their rights and working conditions. Their job contract, also known as the Collective Agreement, expired on July 23 of this year. Workers rejected offers proposed by Swissport twice, first by a 95% vote and then by a 98% vote.

From Harvey’s perspective, the company’s actions reflect a long term strategy to destroy unions at Pearson Airport. “I have been working at the airport for the 13 years now,” said Harvey. “In the last two years, I’ve been seeing companies pop up without any union presence. Investors are looking to privatize airport services, and their hands would be tied by unions. It’s part of profit-making motive and part of a larger scheme in which the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) is involved directly.”

Swissport initially pushed for the workers to accept a Collective Agreement which would give the company the power to change shift with 96 hours notice, withhold benefits from part-time workers, and impose a wage freeze that would affect the majority of workers.

According to the Union, Swissport knew that it was demanding unfair concessions from workers, and took preemptive measures to make sure their operations would not suffer during an inevitable labour dispute by hiring untrained temporary workers.

The temporary workers were brought in by Swissport in May, well in advance of the expiration of the Collective Agreement. They did not undergo the proper clearance procedures to be able to work at the airport, which takes anywhere from three to six months to complete.

Swissport and GTAA’s disrespect of workers

Speaking about the year and a half he spent working at Pearson Airport, former Swissport employee Affan Mughal stated that part-time employees were not entitled to benefits until they reached the two year mark. He understands why his former colleagues rejected Swissport’s previous proposals, including the one to deny benefits to all part-time workers.

“The company does not take care of its employees much,” said Mughal. “It makes employees feel inferior, and tries to get the job done fast without always following safety precautions. The people in management think they know best about operations, but some of the workers have been there for years and know a lot more.”

Teamsters Local 419 members joined by other airport union members at Pearson International Airport (Photo credit: Jason W Sweet).

Unifor Local 2002 Mob ilizing Coordinator and Toronto Airport Workers’ Council Representative Sean Smith feels that the GTAA, and companies through which it hires contract workers like Swissport, are provoking labour disputes with vulnerable workers deliberately.

“Teamsters is the second smallest union at the airport, representing a small group of contract workers with very little job security, some of whom are newer to Canada and have no deep roots in Canadian society,” said Smith. “Swissport needed to shut down worker discontent to make an example of them.”

Smith, who was part of the solidarity strike undertaken by other workers in support of the Swissport strike, believes the way forward is by airport employees banding together.

“Every company in the airport is making record profits. This strike should have never happened. 50,000 people work at the airport, making it the second largest employment zone in all of Canada, second to downtown Toronto.The government considers us a nobody. The only way we can protect ourselves is by coming together as a class and believing in working class solidarity.”