January 19, 2022 By Sarah Smellie, The Canadia Press
ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A temporary fix to a labour dispute with firefighters at the St. John’s International Airport expires on Thursday morning, and the head of the facility says management is doing everything it can to avoid a forced closure.
Peter Avery, chief executive officer of the airport authority, said Wednesday the airport’s firehall will be adequately staffed until 8 a.m. on Thursday. After that, he said, it’s not clear who will take over for them and the fate of the day’s flights remains up in the air.
“I would like to say to the travelling public that the urgency of this situation is our highest priority,” Avery said. “A forced closure of the airport at this time is not something that we can allow to continue.”
Management was talking with the firefighters union “as we speak,” he added.
The Union of Canadian Transportation Employees says a “campaign of harassment and discrimination” against firefighters has stifled concerns around safety and regulatory compliance and ultimately thinned their ranks. In a news release Monday, the union said staff were being told by their doctors to stay home because of the “toxic workplace.”
On Tuesday night, the St. John’s International Airport Authority said it could not find enough staff for the firehall to meet regulations and thus suspended all flights except cargo, medical evacuation and planes with fewer than 20 seats. In a tweet Wednesday morning, the authority said it had found a solution and operations had resumed.
But the solution wasn’t permanent.
Avery said two firefighters agreed to work a 24-hour shift beginning Wednesday morning. It is “unknown at this point” what happens when their shift ends, he said. “It rests on us being able to secure more qualified firefighters to replace the ones that we currently have.”
He said the authority has worked with Transport Canada to find other firefighters “locally, nationally and internationally” to help out, pending the union’s blessing.
“We are calling on the union at all levels to assist us in bringing these qualified resources in so we can move back to full operations in very short order,” Avery said.
As for the union’s allegations, he said the airport authority hired an independent investigator to look into the union’s concerns. The investigator’s report prompted “significant changes,” he said, adding that changes are still being made.
“We have a federal mediator working as we speak to address concerns that have been brought forward,” Avery said.
Thomas Johnston, a rotational worker living near St. John’s, said his flight was among those cancelled because of the dispute. He works on a ship in the Great Lakes region and lives in the town of Holyrood, N.L., on his time off. Johnston said he was supposed to head back to work on Wednesday, flying from St. John’s to Toronto at 5 a.m. and then to Windsor, Ont.
His plane didn’t leave the ground.
“This should not have come to this level,” Johnston said in a Facebook message to The Canadian Press about the dispute. “It should have been dealt with before bringing civilians into it.”
He said he’s been rescheduled on another flight leaving Thursday. But with the fate of the airport still up in the air, Johnston said he’s not holding his breath. “I’m not gone yet,” he wrote. “Anything can happen between now and tomorrow morning.”
In a statement Tuesday, federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the situation is “completely unacceptable.”
“This airport provides an essential service to Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said. “Both parties must take any necessary steps to find a solution that will keep operations ongoing and safe.”
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