Airlines

‘We’re frustrated, we’re disappointed, and frankly we’re completely pissed off’

Union leaders take their pitch for an aviation aid to Ottawa

union aviation aid
The domestic check-in area at Vancouver International Airport (Brett Ballah).

When union leader Christopher Rauenbusch made his case for aviation aid Tuesday to the Commons Transport Committee, the pitch was personal.

“I have just avoided layoff for February by two years of service,” said Rauenbusch. He’s the president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 4070, representing 4,100 Westjet flight attendants. “I’ve been employed by Westjet for 19 years and there are currently no flight attendants with less than 17 years of service who are currently flying. Roughly four out of five flight attendants at Westjet are grounded right now.”

Rauenbusch was one of six union leaders invited to give their perspectives to the committee. They painted a picture of an industry in crisis, with thousands of people laid off, and faint prospects of government aid to bail them out.

“We’re frustrated, we’re disappointed, and frankly, we’re completely pissed off,” said Unifor National President Jerry Dias.

“Needless to say, it has been a difficult year for us,” said Wesley Lesosky, the president of the Air Canada Component of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. “To be quite frank, it has been [made] much more difficult than it needed to be by the federal government. Which has repeatedly ignored our calls for help and rarely, if ever, consults labour representatives on major decisions affecting our members.”

Have you been consulted?

The issue of consultation became a bit one at the committee.

“Have you been able to meet with Mr. Garneau or the new minister?” asked Bloc Québécois MP Xavier Barsalou-Duval. Leader after leader said they’d reached out to meet with Omar Alghabra after his appointment as Transport Minister. Some met with bureaucrats or political aides. Of the six leaders present, only Dias has met with Alghabra.

This is an important point. The government has floated the idea of further cracking down on international travel. Ministers and premiers have floated a range of ideas, including forcing international travellers to quarantine in hotels at their expense.

“Has your union been consulted on a possible 14-day mandatory hotel quarantine?” asked Conservative MP Mark Strahl. “And what is your view of what impact that will have on the industry?”

“In simple terms, no,” replied Rauenbusch. “If this was to take place, and again for which we have not been consulted, I would foresee almost decimating levels of complete inability to bring in almost any revenue whatsoever.”

It’s a point echoed by the association representing Canada’s largest airlines.

“While governments at all levels continue to recognize the need for aviation to continue to operate, we cannot do so without passengers,” said Mike McNaney, the president of the National Airlines Council of Canada. “As additional measures continue to be considered, we need the federal government to engage with industry and labour on the development of such measures.”

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Will employees stick around?

“We have more workers who are not working than who are working,” said Dias. “The bigger issue is what happens when we are coming through the pandemic? What happens if we don’t have a strong industry? What happens when we lose air traffic controllers or pilots to other countries or they move into other industries? How are we going to restart the economy that we know is going to need a jump start?”

Everyone has been hesitant to put a dollar figure on their requests for financial help. The government pledged a few hundred million over the next five years for airports. As for airlines, they are negotiating with the government behind closed doors.

But two unions representing employees at NAV Canada, the nation’s private air traffic control company, made a bold ask: $1.5 billion to cover losses in 2020 and 2021. Otherwise, airline fees will continue to rise.

“We need something here,” said Rauenbusch, “in order to have an employer and jobs to return to. I can’t overstate the significance of how that would unfold without an aid package.”

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