CUPE members attending the 2016 Transportation Sector Council were largely from the airline division, and a small number of other transportation sectors including urban transit and provincial road and highway workers. While each of these subsectors has unique challenges, conference delegates learned from one another that they have many common concerns including deregulation, privatization, work overload and workplace violence. They also learned about shared risks posed by global trade liberalization and the Canada Transportation Act review. 

Commercial aviation is expanding rapidly world-wide. Though expansion may signify employment growth and possibly even labour shortages for cabin crew, intense competition has potentially serious consequences for all airline workers. Airline operators will continue to place downward pressure on labour costs by reducing cabin crew, intensifying work, reducing wages and benefits, and removing union work rules. Low cost carriers threaten long-established legacy airlines, including Air Canada. At the regulatory level, airlines will lobby aggressively for further deregulation, company driven safety management systems, and weaker protection for domestic airline markets. The culmination of these corporate efforts may be an “open skies” environment that includes foreign-owned airlines serving domestic markets and foreign registration or “flags of convenience” in low wage, highly deregulated markets. The Canadian airline industry will experience transformation. 

A recent review of the Canada Transportation Act (CTA) calls on the federal government to modernize rail, marine and commercial aviation, in order for Canada to be a “global competitor” in a free trade environment. Key recommendations in this corporate friendly blueprint include privatizing airports and moving toward open skies. The Liberal government has signaled its support for this direction, recently announcing that it has exempted two ultra-low cost carriers from current limits to foreign ownership in order to “capitalize” their startups. These non-union, low cost competitors will reduce domestic control and place further downward pressure on wages and working conditions, especially at other leisure airlines” such as Air Transat, Sunwing Airlines, and Air Canada rouge.  

Fortunately, CUPE will have concluded bargaining at all seven airlines before these competitors are operating. Wage increases have ranged from the CPI to 2 per cent and work rules have remained largely intact and in some cases improved. Though CUPE has successfully maintained better ratios at Air Canada and Air Transat, many airlines operate at the 1:50 ratio with cabin crew reporting reduced safety, intensified work, and increased fatigue. 

The proposed federal pension bill C-27 threatens federally regulated workers, including Air Canada’s defined benefit plan, and creates a chilling effect for other airlines seeking improved retirement security. 

The CUPE Airline Division established its first Political Action Committee and is undertaking a “Safer Skies” campaign. It will fight to reverse the 1:50 ratio as well as press for regulatory protection against emerging health and safety risks such as cosmic radiation and aero-toxic fumes on board aircraft.  

Delegates exchanged information about successful campaigns to protect bargained rights, take political action, and communicate with members through both face-to-face contact and social media.  

There is a clear union advantage for transportation workers. Hard fought and long established entitlements, particularly in legacy airlines like Air Canada, have been protected despite intense employer pressure, while political advocacy has influenced the regulatory regime. However, there is little doubt that low-cost competition in airlines and intense pressure to privatize urban transit and municipal roads and highways, pose major threats. The need to organize non-union airlines to maintain standards is immense, while transit workers and road and highway workers will need to continue to fight privatization and/or bring work back into the public sector.