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VANCOUVER—A two-kilometre stretch of road near the entrance to Vancouver International Airport was briefly transformed into a sea of pink this morning, thanks to a solidarity march and rally for Air Canada flight attendants that drew a boisterous crowd of more than 250 flag-waving flight attendants and their supporters.

One of six events held simultaneously across Canada (the others were in Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax), the rally called for fair treatment of flight attendants. Speakers at the rally focused on the impact that such layoffs would have on the lives of workers and their families, on communities, and on travellers.

More than 600 flight attendants across Canada have been targeted for layoffs—300 of them in Vancouver. In a June 17 letter to the federal Minister of Labour, the national flight carrier said the layoffs were necessary because it would have to reduce flying operations on routes it said had become “unprofitable” due to boosting fuel prices.

Time to push back

CUPE 4094 president Deb Purvey said activist effort resulted in 3,000 e-mails to minister.

“From Vancouver to Halifax, we’re taking matters into our own hands by demanding that Air Canada treat flight attendants with the dignity and respect we truly deserve,” said CUPE 4094 president Deb Purvey.

“Air Canada’s decision will affect the lives of dedicated flight attendants and their families. These layoffs mean our community will lose 300 good paying jobs. There will be fewer flight attendants, and therefore flights will be cancelled. This affects our communities and tourism.”

Purvey and other speakers praised CUPE 4094 members for their efforts in pushing back against Air Canada.

“Our union asked for your support, and you delivered,” said Purvey, referring to the more than 3,000 e-mails and letters sent to federal Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, urging him not to grant Air Canada an exemption from the Labour Code. On Friday, Blackburn denied Air Canada’s waiver.

Nick Beveridge, CUPE National airline component vice-president, chided Air Canada for approaching bargaining issues in a constant state of crisis.

Layoffs will cost our communities and hurt our families.

“The current crisis is the state of fuel,” he said. “What they fail to mention is other things, like the rise in the Canadian dollar, fuel surcharges and other surcharges they’ve tacked on to the passenger fare, and fuel hedging—they hedge approximately 40 per cent of their fuel prices at $90 a barrel.”

Beveridge, quoting CAW economist Jim Stanford, said that when these other factors are considered the impact on the corporation of the fuel hikes is not all that great.

Getting results in Ottawa

NDP Member of Parliament Libby Davies (Vancouver East) congratulated CUPE 4094 members for their resilience in standing up to their employer thus far and effectively putting pressure on the federal government to intervene.

“The union, and its members, got into such high gear so fast that the minister in Ottawa never knew what hit him,” Davies said, to wild applause.

“I’m sure he was thinking, ‘Well, you know, it’s the middle of the summer and everyone is on holidays,’ but you guys reacted so quickly, with thousands of messages sent in. This is a very important lesson, that when we organize, mobilize and stand up for our rights, we can push back and change really bad decisions.”

Davies added that CUPE not only represents workers’ interests but also the public interest in terms of what’s happening in the airline industry and Air Canada in particular.

“If there’s any union that can take this on and win this battle and defend these positions,” said Davies, “it’s CUPE.”

Davies’s colleague, NDP Member of Parliament Peter Julian (Burnaby New Westminster), reminded the CUPE flight attendants that working together with the NDP opposition in Ottawa has already produced good results.

“We stand in solidarity with the best flight attendants in the world,” Julian said to loud cheers.

Julian said that two years ago, when the Harper Conservative government tried to reduce the number of flight attendants on Canadian flights, the NDP and CUPE worked together to fight the downsizing—and won the battle.

“We know that Air Canada is acting irresponsibly and we say today: we will fight together with you and we will win the fight for respect for flight attendants of Air Canada.”

NDP MLA Raj Chouhan (Burnaby Edmonds) brought greetings from BC NDP leader Carole James and the entire provincial NDP caucus.

“Air Canada is a national airline and they have a national responsibility,” said Chouhan.

“They must take care of their employees. They have taken care of the CEO’s pockets, and they must take care of the community. We are the ones who have kept Air Canada flying.”

Laws protect workers and the public

The final speaker at the rally, CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill, brought greetings on behalf of the 75,000 CUPE members in B.C., and on behalf of CUPE National president Paul Moist and CUPE National secretary-treasurer Claude Genereux.

“We are in a sad state in this country when we have to put together a campaign to convince our politicians that some companies should actually abide by the law,” said O’Neill.

“That is shameful. Those laws were put in place not for Air Canada, not for any other multinational or national company. They were put together to protect workers in this country from the very thing that is happening with Air Canada.”

O’Neill, a frequent flyer with Air Canada, said the flight carrier is using higher fuel costs as an excuse to victimize workers and gouge the public.

“If anybody is paying for higher fuel costs, it’s the consumer,” said O’Neill. “This fight is not going to end on this corner. We have to leave here and mobilize. We are the faces that the public will see and the public will appreciate.”

O’Neill concluded that the real fight for air services in our communities begins now.

“We will need to be more diligent than we’ve ever been,” he said. “If we want to save a national carrier in this country—if we want that national carrier to have the face that we want as Canadians—then we’re going to have to push back and push back awfully hard.”

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