For the past two months airline passengers at 40 airports across Western Canada have frequently encountered unexpected drama at their points of departure: long picket lines confronting busloads of nervous-looking strikebreakers. Many travellers have also received bluntly worded pamphlets from the 1,800 ticket handlers, flight attendants and mechanics on strike against Pacific Western Airlines (PWA), the nation’s largest and most profitable regional airline. One reads, “Inexperienced crews are on the ground and in the air. We are professionals and we believe your safety is at risk—from the ground up.” Despite those notices, PWA has managed to keep its 21 aircraft in service throughout the increasingly acrimonious dispute. And although one of three striking unions (the United Auto Workers, which represents 800 terminal employees) reached a tentative agreement last week, neither side is predicting an early end to the strike.
The main issue that has contributed to the length and bitterness of the strike is the federal government’s commitment to relax rules involving fares and flight routes, PWA made a profit of $18.7 million in 1984, but airline officials say that in order for it to survive in a more competitive, deregulated market it has to cut costs by asking
its work force to be more productive. Declared PWA spokesman Jack Lawless: “We need some cost advantages. If we cannot get the same contracts that Air Canada and CP have, or better, there is no way we can compete.” But union leaders say that the company recorded a 14.3-per-cent return on investment in the past five years— one of the industry’s highest. At the same time, the strikers say that the company is asking for more than 200 unwarranted concessions, including more part-time employees, longer working days and lower
salaries for new employButterworth: ees. Said Susan Butterworth, a 35-year-old flight attendant and Edmonton strike coordinator: “They are one of the most profitable airlines in North America. They are competitive now.
Why do they want to rape our contracts?”
The strike reflects the anxiety that has gripped both the industry and its unions since new, nonunionized carriers began operating after U.S. deregulation in 1978 and thousands of unionized airline work-
ers lost their jobs as a result. In anticipation of similar competition, both Canadian Pacific Air Lines and Air Canada obtained concessions from their unions last year. But some observers say that the deregulated Canadian industry will not follow the same path as its U.S. counterpart. Declared Allen Ponak, director of the Industrial Relations Research Group at the University of Calgary: “The relaxing of regulations in Canada has not been nearly as significant as it has in the United States. It is fair to ask if the airlines aren’t using deregulation as an excuse to strike better contract deals with their unions.”
For its part, the airline has put 500 supervisors from its Calgary headquarters into service as flight attendants and ticket agents and hired another 600 personnel for wages substantially lower than the strikers had made. At Christmas PWA president Rhys Eyton authorized a $200 bonus for each of what he called “new-hire employees.” Said one picketing flight attendant at Edmonton’s busy municipal airport: “It is a damn insult. I have been with PWA for 22 years and I have never seen two cents from the company at Christmas.”
Slow progress at the negotiating table has been accompanied by violence on the picket lines. One of the unions has also charged the company with unfair labor practices, citing a deposition made by a former security guard before British Columbia’s Supreme Court on Jan. 6. He claimed that his Vancouver employer, Pat Westphal Consultants Ltd., which has a contract with PWA for the strike’s duration, told its employees to “clear out” picketers at Vancouver’s airport, and added, “Don’t kill them, but if you are going to be charged with assault you may as well make it worthwhile.”
Westphal declined to comment on the charge, but for his part Lawless
_ dismissed it as “hear-
‘Why rape?’ say.” He added that such incidents are not helping to break the current deadlock, despite the help last week of federal mediators for the first time. But he declared that the company can afford to outwait the strikers, and added that despite their warnings about safety it is carrying the same number of passengers as it did during the same period last year.
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