Labour relations at YVR stalled on the runway

The stunning January crash of a US Airways Airbus A320 into the Hudson River, the result of a double bird strike, dramatized for millions the deadly threat posed by a goose up the intake of a jet aircraft.
No wonder bird control is a vital concern at YVR, Canada’s Pacific air gateway, located in the middle of the North Pacific migration flyway. Night and day, workers armed with guns, lasers, dogs and noise makers patrol the runways to drive off birds.
Why then has this critical job been handled by three different YVR contractors in the past six months, two of whom brought in new and untried workers almost overnight?
It’s just one example, say airport unions, of poor labour relations practices that are posing serious risks to airport safety and YVR’s reputation.
The entire sorry bird story is winding its way through various hearings at the Canada Industrial Relations Board, where the Public Service Alliance of Canada is alleging anti-union bias by YVR in its handling of bird control services, a charge YVR rejects.
If PSAC’s allegations are upheld, they will strike a blow against YVR’s long-standing pretence that it has no responsibility when a YVR contractor winds up in the glue.
The reality is very different, as the Dziekanski taser affair showed. When Dziekanski’s death was videotaped and You-tubed by a nearby traveler, YVR and Vancouver took a global reputational hit at the hands of the RCMP, a YVR contractor of police services.
It was weeks before YVR realized the damage done and began to take responsibility.
YVR has the same attitude of denial about labour relations, which “don’t exist” according to Ron Fontaine, who heads one of two locals of the International Association of Machinists at the airport.
Fontaine’s members perform a wide range of duties, including security provided to YVR through Securiguard and other contractors.
Fontaine says YVR senior managers will not meet with airport unions, a far cry from the days of former airport CEO David Emerson, who would sit down over coffee for informal problem-solving.
Fontaine’s union is engaged in a constant struggle to organize and negotiate for employees of the ever-shifting cast of YVR contractors.
In 2007, when negotiations between the IAM and some security contractors came off the rails, anger boiled over into a threatened wildcat blockade that could have shut down airport road access for hours.
YVR told the BC Federation of Labour it had nothing to do with the dispute and would not get involved. Had cooler heads not prevailed, YVR’s media relations people would have been challenged to explain that view to travelers.
The basic facts in the bird-control case are pretty clear. Soon after the workers, employed by the BC Corps of Commissionaires, joined PSAC’s Union of Canadian Transportation Employees and demanded a hefty raise, YVR changed the contractor without tender.
The new supplier was Airport Wildlife Management International, a Vancouver Island firm with a vague corporate record. Within weeks, it too was gone in favour of Westguard, a YVR security contractor.
Experienced workers were out on the street, says PSAC regional vice-president Dave Clark, who argues “it’s not right to take a risk with inexperienced staff.”
By mid-May, Clark was fighting YVR on another front, seeking a conciliator to assist in talks on behalf of more than 300 emergency response, runway maintenance and other key workers.
These workers are direct YVR employees, Clark notes, but in 10 years the union has never concluded an agreement without a strike vote. In 1998, they struck for five days. (Essential services rules keep the runways functioning.)
Despite its non-profit status, YVR seems to have unlimited funds for capital improvements, Clark notes, and ran a $12 million surplus in the first quarter of 2009. He believes the appointment of a labour-friendly board member could steady a volatile labour relations climate.
Anything would help. With thousands of employees, four different unions, a score of contractors, and a strategic role in the national economy, YVR is ultimately responsible for airport labour relations – and the consequences of a breakdown — whether it likes it or not.

July 2009