This profile is intended to provide CUPE members with basic information about the sector they work in from a national perspective. Find all our sector profiles and more information online at cupe.ca
CUPE represents approximately 28,750 members in the transportation sector, including workers in airlines, airports, ferries, port authorities, rail, roads and highways, and public and private transit systems.
The airline division represents more than 10,000 members in 9 airlines. The majority of flight attendants—5,850—work at Air Canada. More than 2,600 members work at WestJet, Swoop, and Encore. Over 1,600 members work at Air Transat and Sunwing Airlines. And over 300 members are employed at Calm Air, Flair, PAL, Pivot, and Canadian North. Canadian North merged with First Air in 2019. CUPE also represents maintenance workers at 5 municipal airports.
Air Canada and Air Transat have several locals, with an executive responsible for each local, and a national executive committee that oversees collective bargaining and grievances. Members of other carriers are represented by one single local. The CUPE Airline Division is the governing body for the sector and meets prior to CUPE’s national convention.
CUPE also represents 10,700 transit workers. The majority are bus drivers employed by municipal transit authorities in Quebec.
Each municipality has a separate local and collective agreement. Sector representatives meet quarterly as CUPE Quebec’s Conseil provincial du secteur du transport terrestre (CPSTT) to discuss issues of common concern and plan sector-wide campaigns.
Road and highway maintenance workers form the third largest group in the sector with over 4,500 members. These members perform a wide range of inside- and outside-work related to provincial road repair and maintenance.
Another 3,000 transportation members are employed in the marine and rail sectors, including port workers in the Province of Quebec, SkyTrain and Southern Rail in British Columbia, local port authorities, and ferry workers in Ontario and Quebec.
Hostile government policy and legislation
A well-funded, accessible, and affordable transportation system is vital to the safe and reliable movement of people and goods. It’s also an important determinant of economic and social growth. However, transportation workers worldwide are facing intense pressures—lower wages and deteriorating working conditions as governments and corporations compete in a “race to the bottom” through privatization and deregulation, increasing precarity, and attacks on collective bargaining rights.
Transport Canada continues to operate in secrecy and in the interests of corporations, prioritizing profitability over public safety in commercial aviation and rail transportation. In fact, a regulation that allows for fewer flight attendants onboard aircrafts clearly states the cost savings airlines will realize based on lower wages and other related labour costs.
Transport Canada allows airlines to reduce the number of flight attendants required onboard aircrafts. Fewer flight attendants compromise the safety of both passengers and crew, increases flight attendants’ workload, erodes the quality of their work, and undermines job security. CUPE has urged Transport Canada to increase the number of flight attendants working on aircrafts.
The work of transit drivers and highway and road workers is increasingly being privatized and contracted out resulting in the loss of well-paying jobs, more precarious employment, and attacks on collective bargaining rights. The fallout has been increased job insecurity, work overload, and decreased job satisfaction.
Health and safety
Reducing the number of CUPE flight attendants required on aircraft is a major health and safety concern. Reducing cabin crew affects all safety procedures especially in emergency situations and leads to greater workload and increased fatigue. CUPE has been proactive in bargaining language that exceeds the regulations even though Transport Canada allows airlines to fly with fewer cabin crew. For example, CUPE has bargained language for members at Air Canada and Air Transat that maintains the safety-proven ratio of one flight attendant per forty passenger seats on some aircraft.
Transit drivers also experience a range of occupational health risks including musculoskeletal problems, stomach and intestinal disorders, sleeping disorders, and psychological problems. Cabins are often cramped, poorly designed and illuminated, and expose drivers to constant temperature changes and vibration. Work schedules are frequently erratic with split shifts, inadequate rest periods during and between shifts, and exhausting shift rotations.
Flight attendants and transit drivers are concerned about the increased risk of workplace violence. On Canada’s airlines, added fees, reduced on-board service, and higher-density aircraft have increased the number of dissatisfied and disruptive passengers. Disorderly and sometimes violent passengers have put transit drivers’ safety at risk. Workers feel unprotected and unsupported by management and report high levels of stress.
Highway and road workers face occupational risks related to fatigue and stress, including excessive hours of work during severe weather conditions, and driving emergency vehicles in hazardous conditions.
Transport Canada shirked its responsibility to keep airline workers and passengers safe during the pandemic. Instead of acting like a regulator, Transport Canada allowed airlines to determine pandemic safety precautions at their discretion, putting profits over safety. The federal government deemed airline workers essential during the pandemic, but it did not protect workers from the economic impacts of the pandemic or support airline workers’ right to refuse unsafe work.
Thousands of flight attendants were either laid-off or furloughed as airlines cancelled flights following public health restrictions. Several flight attendants had their employment terminated because of their employer’s vaccination policies; multiple grievances have been filed. Arbitration and court decisions in several jurisdictions have dismissed grievances brought by various unions against employers’ vaccination policies. In some cases, arbitrators have ruled that employers’ vaccination policies constitute a reasonable exercise of management rights.
CUPE’s Airline Division made frequent requests for meetings with federal officials to discuss workers’ concerns about the pandemic, but our requests were ignored. Instead, the federal government negotiated a financial aid package with the airline industry in secret with no input from organized labour, and with no commitment to protect jobs. To make matters worse, the federal government’s wage subsidy program failed most workers in the sector after Air Canada denied laid-off workers access to the program.
CUPE’s Airline Division had the opportunity to appear before the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure, and Communities. The Division demanded urgent federal action to protect the tens of thousands of jobs in the sector during the pandemic. It also advocated for rapid COVID-19 testing to keep workers and passengers safe.
Many transportation workers, including flight attendants and transit workers, lack access to proper, personal protective equipment (PPE) to do their jobs safely. Flight attendants were required to enforce mandatory mask requirements and manage disruptive and aggressive passengers while navigating ever-changing COVID-19 protocols. Unruly passengers refusing to obey mandatory mask requirements have verbally and physically assaulted flight attendants. CUPE called on the federal government to restrict non-essential, onboard service for food and beverages that allowed passengers to unmask for extended periods. These services dramatically increase the risk of transmission of the virus and are the primary driver of disruptive and aggressive passenger behaviour.
Canada Infrastructure Bank
Pointing to evidence provided by CUPE, in May 2022 a parliamentary committee report recommended the abolishment of the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), a major victory for opponents of privatization. The committee confirmed that privatization costs more, delivers less, and harms the public services we need. The mandate of the CIB is to support public transit, trade and transportation, and green infrastructure through funding provided by public-private partnerships (P3s).
The federal liberals broke an election promise to support municipalities with low-cost loans, and instead launched the CIB that served the interests of big corporations. It performed poorly, lost millions of dollars, and had little to show for its massive operating budget and executive salaries.
CUPE has been advocating for a public bank that works for communities, not corporations; a bank that would be a source of low-cost loans to help governments build infrastructure, boost the economy, and supports good, green jobs. A public bank would loan money at lower interest rates, support community projects, and would not come with a requirement to privatize through P3s and other schemes.
In the spring of 2022, the federal government passed back-to-work legislation to end a legal, five-day strike by the members of CUPE 375, the Montreal Longshore Workers’ Union. The local said it would challenge the legislation in court as it violates rights protected by the constitution. The government claimed the strike put lives at risk by delaying the delivery of COVID-related medical products. But Access to Information documents prove those claims untrue. COVID supplies delayed by the strike consisted of five containers of masks and syringes, and no vaccines. Documents show the main concern was spoiled fruit and the potential damage to Canada as a reliable trading partner.
Collective bargaining has been turbulent in Canada’s airline sector for decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the bargaining climate even more difficult. Over the past thirty years, deregulation, ruinous price wars, and fierce competition have eroded flight attendants’ wages and working conditions. These factors have created a new underclass of mostly young, precariously employed workers.
Recent rounds of airline bargaining have focussed on protecting hard-won gains and preventing concessions. For ground, marine, and rail transportation workers, austerity-minded provincial and municipal governments continue to privatize and contract out, placing downward pressure on wages and benefits. Priority bargaining issues for the transportation sector include wages, benefits, and working conditions, particularly workers’ health and safety; job security and increasing precarity; privatization and deregulation; and attacks on collective agreement rights.
CUPE transportation locals have made noticeable gains despite the tough bargaining climate. Most negotiated wage increases in the sector during the last two years are in the 2 per cent range.
In May 2022, CUPE signed a memorandum of agreement with Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge that will provide flight attendants with ground duty pay. Previously, the airlines’ flight attendants were essentially working for free while performing work duties on the ground. The agreement also ensures that flight attendants are sufficiently rested for their next scheduled duty after a lengthy unscheduled ground delay. Also in May, an arbitrator awarded the Air Canada component of CUPE’s Airline Division minor improvements to vacation language and duty overtime premiums, and no concessions.
In early 2021, CUPE 7000, Southern Rail of British Columbia, bargained improvements to wages, pension and benefits, human rights language, health and safety, and flexible work arrangements. The local also took steps to reduce rates of precarity in the workplace by bargaining language that converts part-time positions to full-time employment.
And in Quebec, CUPE 5321, Autocars Skyport bargained a wage catch-up totalling close to $15 million in addition to an overall increase in wages and a provision that ties wage increases to inflation.
Transportation workers face formidable challenges from both employers and governments. But CUPE continues to fight to protect good wages, benefits, and working conditions through campaigns and political action.
The Mayday Campaign! was launched by CUPE flight attendants to pressure the federal government to protect jobs and provide a recovery plan for workers during the pandemic. Billboards were erected in key locations in Ottawa and in the home ridings of federal ministers. An email drive resulted in thousands of messages to the prime minister.
CUPE 5959, Société de transport de Laval, kicked off an awareness campaign on the importance of public transit. The campaign was launched during negotiations with the employer to bargain a new collective agreement, which expired in 2019. The local ratified a new collective agreement in the spring of 2022. The 8-year contract provides for annual wages increases ranging between 2 per cent and 4.5 per cent.
CUPE 7000, Southern Rail of B.C. and CUPE 4500, B.C. Transit Authority have joined forces to campaign for public transit. Ridership on public transit declined sharply during the pandemic. The campaign will encourage and remind commuters to start using public transit once again.