Labour and community activists from across Toronto joined a solidarity picket on Thursday, in a show of support for 22 Porter Airlines workers who are on strike against unsafe working conditions and for a living wage. Organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and COPE 343 (the union representing the workers), the rally attracted trade unionists, students, community allies and supporters from the neighbourhood. Organizers peg the turnout at around 200 people.
The picket got underway shortly after 4pm, as participants gathered along the driveway to Toronto Island Airport. Union flags and banners were visible throughout the crowd, including lots of homemade signs and placards. Among the labour supporters were other aviation workers (IAMAW), public school teachers (OSSTF), Ontario public sector workers (OPSEU), autoworkers (CAW), Steelworkers (USW), engineers (SEP), stagehands and theatre technicians (IATSE), teaching assistants (CUPE), the CUPE 966 Flying Squad and numerous rank-and-file activists. Students from York University organized a contingent, as did members of the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly.
Not surprisingly, participants had to face down a heavy police presence before the rally even started. When it did, cops on bikes attempted to form a barricade around the picketers. Despite their aggressive behaviour, the police were unable to stop the rally from shutting down traffic at different points during the picket.
Dave Ritchie, general vice-president of the Machinists (IAMAW), kicked off the speeches by condemning the police tactics: "These police officers is where our dollars go. Our tax dollars pay their wages, but they ain't here for us. They're here for the corporation, and it's a shame!"
Turning to the long line of cops, he said: "Shame on you! Shame on you for being here and trying to intimidate people who are trying to make a fair living!" The crowd joined in chanting, "Shame on you! Shame on you!"
CAW president Ken Lewenza spoke next: "Today there's a couple hundred people. I want to send a message to the Porter management folks that we're going to expedite the campaign in defence of these workers that are making fourteen dollars an hour, that have been on strike for weeks on end now."
Lewenza also pledged his union's support for the strike: "To the COPE membership here today, the Canadian Auto Workers, as a first-time payment, is going to provide $25,000 in strike support tomorrow morning, to make sure that this employer does not knock us out."
Tony DePaulo was the next speaker, and brought solidarity greetings from the Steelworkers: "It doesn't matter if you're 22 members or 2,200, we're going to be here, we're all trade unionists, we're going to stick together, and the Steelworkers will be here with you one day longer."
Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, spoke about the importance of solidarity among workers: "The power we have is the power they don't. We have the power of each other. We have an obligation, and on behalf of our union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, we will publicize this strike, bolster this picket line, bring donations, and stand with these workers until they get the fairness they deserve."
Nancy Hutchinson, secretary-treasurer of the OFL, addressed the safety concerns at the heart of the strike: "We're here not only to support and their issues of the strike, but we're also here as a public safety issue, because there are a lot of safety issues happening on that tarmac that the public should be aware of… Those scabs do not have the training… They do not have the qualifications to clean up these spills. We've heard from the workers that the management have actually told our members to just sweep those spills into the snow bank. Shame on them!"
Hutchinson explained that Porter has provided hardly any training to scab labour for handling the dangerous substances used in refuelling and maintaining its aircraft: "So what we have here is the case of an employer that's turning their back on the legislation of this province, not only when it comes to employment standards, to give these workers a decent living wage, but also when it comes to public safety and the safety of our members."
The final speaker was OFL president Sid Ryan, who talked about how the labour movement could help the Porter strikers win their demands: "We have to make sure, the one thing that's going to make this strike end, believe me, is when these customers that are leaving here, the only reason they fly out of the airport downtown is because of the convenience. And once we continue to stop and block them from going in and out, the phone calls will start going into the corporate office, that it's no longer as convenient: 'you have these strikers outside, fix that strike!'"
Ryan also talked about the need to mobilize during peak travel times for the airline: "Do it in the mornings, do it in the evenings, make sure that when those folks are going up to Ottawa for those important meetings that they miss those meetings as a result of the strike and the result of your blocking them every single day. That's what needs to be done. We need to block them and put the pressure on."
Ryan added that the same tactics helped his own union win a similar strike just a few years ago: "When I was in CUPE, we did this very effectively at the TD Centre. You had all these guys coming in, in their Porsches and their BMWs, and we had the cleaners at the building. They were being dumped upon by the employer, but we created so much hassle for those folks going in and out of those buildings, eventually we got a phone call saying, 'we have to stop this, let's get back to the table, let's fix this strike.' That's what's going to happen here if we disrupt the customers going in and out… The more disruption that takes place, then the more phone calls go upstairs to the corporate sector."
The proposal to mobilize for a coordinated picket during the airline's peak travel times got the most applause, and sparked lots of informal discussion after the speeches about what trade unionists could do, especially rank-and-file activists, to build a rally big enough to really shut down Porter's traffic.
The Porter strike is one of the most high profile examples of a profitable company trying to squeeze even more out of its already low-paid workers, at the expense of a living wage and of the basic safety for workers and passengers. In the context of the widening attack on workers that is part of the austerity agenda, it also represents a concerted effort to smash union organization in general and to roll back labour rights in Ontario. This context raises the stakes for all workers, who will be in a weakened position for the next labour struggle if the Porter strike is defeated.
But it also raises the stakes for all employers and austerity-driven governments at all levels, because a victory for Porter workers would demonstrate the potential for small workplaces to win big battles, even against difficult odds. The key to winning the strike is deepening and expanding the solidarity on the picket line, making sure that more allies can be present more often, as the strikers attempt to disrupt "business as usual" at Porter Airlines.
With labour leaders pledging support in the form of resources and solidarity, there is a real opportunity for rank-and-file activists to mobilize workers from their own workplaces and union locals in support of the Porter strike, and to build a permanently engaged and active base of activists that can translate those gestures of solidarity into real victories.
Read an interview with Porter strikers here and here.
Video footage of all the speeches is available here.
More pictures of the rally are available here.