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Is flying out of Vancouver International airport still safe?

Photo by Rick Audet.

Airport employees across Canada are on edge this week as labour disputes continue concerning airport security workers in Toronto. Here in Vancouver, workers and union representatives are keeping a close eye on the situation, but top priorities involve the collective bargaining currently underway with new management.

Starting in November, security services at the Vancouver Airport will be provided by the international security firm G4S, which was recently awarded a five-year contract by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA).

Tania Canniff, BC chairperson for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), said the union is currently involved in a collective bargaining process with G4S, to come up with an agreement before the company takes over from current contractor Aeroguard Security.

“We currently represent about 90 per cent of the screening officers in the region. So we reached out to G4S, and we were able to reach an agreement with them in advance regarding service, seniority and collective agreement continuance until such time as we could negotiate a new collective agreement,” Canniff said.

Local Lodge 16 of the IAMAW represents over 1500 men and women in the air transportation sector, including the pre-board screening officers who work at YVR.

Multitasking screening officers

Before the union began negotiating the terms of the new agreement, CATSA President Kevin McGarr assured customers that the transition would be an easy one.

“CATSA is committed to a smooth and seamless transition to the new contracts maintaining the highest levels of security while enhancing the customer experience,” he said in a statement.

Unlike the Garda security staff at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, local Vancouver employees are not threatening strikes or work-to-rule actions. But with changes in management and significant layoffs earlier this year, some say they aren't happy with the way things are going.

One pre-board screening officer, participating in the Occupy Vancouver protests Saturday, said that recent job cuts at the airport have made it more difficult for security workers to provide adequate service.

"There were changes made in screening processes that would allow CATSA to restrict, or reduce, the number of hours available for screening officers. That resulted in the actual layoff of 110 people," said Canniff.

"The effect is that the screening officers have to be multitasking. They perform the duties of more than one position at a time now, so there are some fatigue issues."

Compromised airport security?

The main concern is that staffing adjustments will have an impact on passenger safety. When cuts were first announced in the spring, union representatives warned people that the result could be longer lineups and compromises in security.

"We used to have a line of screeners where there would be five or six people. There may only be four or five people now, but they're performing the same amount of work," Canniff explained.

Canniff and the union took their concerns to Ottawa after the cuts were announced, pointing out that changes leading to fatigue can also lead to mistakes and heavy consequences.

The central issue in the current Toronto dispute is Garda’s planned implementation of “shift bidding” – a system that has workers bid on less desirable shifts, so that employers can minimize wages paid by giving shifts to those willing to work for less.

According to Canniff, workers here are familiar with shift bidding, and shift selection processes are generally based on seniority.

"We do shift bidding here as well," she said.

"It's a pretty fundamental principle in most unions and collective agreements, having the ability to select your work hours based on your seniority. It's an important issue to the workers, for sure."

Labour actions in Toronto and elsewhere signal a volatile time in the Canadian air transport industry. Air Canada flight attendants across the country were set to strike last Thursday, when labour minister Lisa Raitt referred their dispute to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board, blocking the action until a review is completed.

In terms of security services, Canniff said part of the problem is having third party security firms facilitate the employment process.

"I think this whole business of having a service provider, as opposed to CATSA just being the employer, is problematic," she said.

"It complicates the workplace and creates conflict."

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