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Solidarity with Swissport Workers

Kevin Brice-Lall

July 31, 2017

Last Thursday evening 700 baggage handlers (including cleaners) in Teamsters Local 419 voted 95 per cent in favour of striking after their employer Swissport—a service provider for almost half the planes landing at Pearson Airport—offered them a deal which enshrines unsafe working conditions.  

While on paper this strike is about the rejection of a bad contract which brings on 250 temporary workers, Swissport’s management has been disrupting workers’ lives through rescheduling shifts some workers have had for over 10 years and built their lives around, or overworking some to the point of near-accidents, some accidents which tragically have led to death.

“We are just a number to them, they don’t care about us”

During a visit to the picket line it was easy to see why 95 per cent of workers voted to strike. Nobody was shy about sharing examples of how they had been put at risk by Swissport’s profit-before-safety management practices.  

We were told cleaners are being forced to work faster, as a result meaning working less safely. One was cut by a syringe left in a seat pocket, two temporary workers who were insufficiently trained narrowly avoided “being sucked into an engine”, and most tragically, some workers have died on the job. In 2012 a baggage handler was caught between a loader and a plane, and in 2016 an Air Canada worker died after being crushed by a baggage cart which rolled on top of him.  

Workers’ Power

Pearson airport is Canada’s busiest airport and largest workplace with an estimated 40,000 workers who are strategically placed to shut down all air travel, or as one of the strikers put it,  “if we don’t clean it they don’t fly”. In mass workplaces like this resistance rarely happens in isolation. This was learned the hard way in 2012 by former Labour Minister, Lisa Raitt who suspended several workers for slow-clapping her as she walked through the airport. She retorted, “Arrest these animals”, which was met with a wildcat strike that stopped over 80 flights and resulted in the reinstatement of the workers within 24 hours.  

Teamsters Local 419 and workers across the airport wield a tremendous power in the ability to shut down air travel, and, if attached to a broader working class movement, they could directly pose in practice who controls society—a few managers in an office who stare at planes or the workers who keep them in the air. As socialists in this struggle we must show solidarity with the Teamsters while linking it up to the broader working class movement, particularly since the horror stories of unsafe work are not limited to any single industry and that a victory here could inspire other workers outside the airport to fight.

Not safe enough to work at, not safe enough to fly with

For everyone but the Swissport management it’s easy to see that passengers’ flying conditions are tied directly to the health, training, and welfare of their staff. As Swissport attempts to bring on more and more temporary workers, or substituting supervisors for highly skilled positions such as load controllers, it’s not hard to imagine the current trend of injuries and fatalities spiraling into something much worse. The longer Swissport keeps the Teamsters of Local 419 on strike the higher the likelihood of accidents becomes.

Teamsters Local 419 are striking for more than just a good contract, they’re striking for dignity, respect, and the right to go to work without fearing they won’t make it home. Swissport has made it abundantly clear, from the first fatality in 2012 through the consistent injuries and abuses which define their management up to today, that their interest is profit, not safety.  

The chant at their picket line was “RESPECT 4-1-9 !”, a respect clearly denied by Swissport. To help make sure they get the respect and deal they deserve we must show them as much solidarity as we can.

Contact Swissport and demand they negotiate in good faith with the Teamsters or visit their picket at Terminal 3 Departures and show your support.

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