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Vancouver’s Airport Could Face Strike Action During Spring Break

After six months negotiating, food service workers escalate their bid to raise pay to living wage levels.

Brishti Basu 15 Mar 2024The Tyee

Brishti Basu reports on labour for The Tyee. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on X @brish_ti.

After six months at the bargaining table, about 200 food service workers at Vancouver’s airport have voted to take strike action if their demands for pay increases in a first contract are not met.

In a media release, Unite Here Local 40 said job action “could disrupt daily airport operations as the spring break and Easter weekend rush approaches.”

About 85 per cent of those who voted backed the strike mandate, said Sharan Pawa, a union spokesperson. The employees work for SSP Canada Food Services and staff dozens of food service outlets at the airport.

Pawa said the union is seeking pay increases that would take workers to the Vancouver living wage of $25.68 an hour.

Bargaining so far has not shown progress toward the goal, Pawa said.

“That is why they’ve escalated to the strike vote, because they’re not seeing that in their bargaining sessions with the company.”

A union-led survey of the airport restaurant and cafe workers, which Pawa said garnered about 130 responses, found that the average hourly wage is $18.27, and the lowest paid workers make minimum wage.

Achieving the bargaining goal would require a wage increase of about 40 per cent, based on the survey.

SSP did not respond to The Tyee’s request for comment in time for publication.

An airport spokesperson said it was not aware of the status of negotiations.

“We are aware that SSP Canada Food Services is in contract negotiations with its employees, and that their employees are now in a legal strike position,” the spokesperson said. “We hope that the parties are able to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.”

While the union has a strike mandate, it can’t take job action without serving a 72-hour strike notice.

Pawa said it’s considering next steps, including whether to issue strike notice.

The impact of a strike is uncertain, she said.

“If major strike does occur, there will be picket lines, but we really don’t know,” Pawa said. “At this time the workers are still deciding what to do next. They just really want to see progress over the negotiation table, and then they’ll weigh their options and see what’s best for continuing in their fights.”

The union is also unhappy that the airport ended a program that reimbursed staff for taxi and Uber costs when they had to come in to work outside the SkyTrain’s operating hours.

It filed a complaint with the Labour Relations Board saying SSP Canada Food Services should be required to bring back a travel subsidy it had before YVR launched its program early in the pandemic.

“Right now the workers are expected to spend up to hundreds of dollars to work their shifts,” Pawa said. “Workers who are scheduled to start before 5 a.m., or end their shifts late… cannot take the SkyTrain home.”

Unite Here Local 40, which largely represents women of colour in the hospitality sector, has a record of advocating loudly for workers at airport hotels and northern B.C. work camps.

According to their survey of airport food service workers, almost nine out of 10 have said they are struggling to keep up with housing costs and bills, and 40 per cent have started buying less fresh food as a result.

“With this very strong strike vote, the workers are really sending a strong message that they want wage discrimination to end at YVR,” Pawa said.

“Hospitality workers in general, in our province and in Metro Vancouver, whether they work at hotels or at the airport serving guests, they want to be valued for their work because they’re very critical to our industry here in the province.”

In 2022, YVR became certified as a Living Wage Employer and adopted a policy of paying the B.C. designated living wage or higher for all its direct staff.

The airport authority’s policy also states it works with contractors who provide services like janitorial, maintenance, landscaping and traffic, to “ensure they, too, exceed the legal minimum wage and are able to pay their employees the income required to meet basic living needs.”

When asked whether the airport authority pays its staff the 2023 living wage and how many of its contract workers receive the same, the YVR spokesperson said, “We have no further information,” in an email.

The strike action vote for wage increases indicates food service workers are not covered under this policy.  [Tyee]

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