Air North flight attendants begin working to rule

Air North flight attendants are withdrawing non-essential services from flights after about a year of trying to negotiate a contract with the company.

Air North flight attendants are withdrawing non-essential services from flights after about a year of trying to negotiate a contract with the company.

The flight attendants will only do the minimum required to make the flights run safely, said Yukon Employees Union president Steve Geick. That means cutting things like in-flight food and beverage service and snacks.

The demonstration will happen on a rotating basis, said Geick. He wouldn’t say which flights would be targeted.

The Vancouver flight took off this morning as usual.

When a flight is picked, flight attendants will be waiting outside to explain to travellers what’s happening, he said.

Air North was given 72-hour notice of the job action Friday morning. An embargo kept both sides from talking about it until this morning.

Geick said 85 per cent of about 30 flight attendants voted in favour of the plan at several meetings held two weeks ago.

“The reason we did that is because we wanted to ensure as many people got out as possible. It’s not a decision you want half the people making. By doing that we got 99 per cent of the flight attendants out to vote.”

The flight attendants’ complaints have to do with work conditions and wages, the union says.

“Air North’s flight attendants have been at the bargaining table for close to a year but despite their optimism and hard work they are profoundly discouraged by the lack of progress,” the union wrote in its announcement.

“All avenues available to them through bargaining have been exhausted but critical issues remain unresolved with no agreement in sight.”

Geick said the flight attendants’ salaries are low compared to the industry standard for other similar airlines.

“When we say industry standard, we’re not comparing them to large airlines. We’re comparing them to airlines that operate north of 60…So, Air Canada Jazz, First Air,” he said. “All this stuff is compared to similar sized airlines that work in the North.”

Geick won’t say exactly how much of a pay increase the flight attendants are looking for.

Part of the dispute has to do with the company’s pay scale, Geick said.

“All of the competitors have between six to eight levels. So if you were to start tomorrow, within six to eight years you would be at the top of the salary range. Air North has 16. So in order to be at the top salary as a flight attendant, you would have to work for them for 16 years.”

Other sticking points include unpaid “grey days” where employees are expected to be ready to fly whether or not they get called into work, how employees are paid their minimum guaranteed work hours, and vacation pay.

“We do earn some vacation leave. However, our employer uses our vacation leave bank to top up our guaranteed minimum wages when they do not schedule us the promised 70 hours per month,” the union’s website explains.

“That means we can’t really earn vacation time at all. On paper it appears we earn sick leave but the same rules apply; any sick time we’re paid for comes out of our vacation bank.

Air North President Joe Sparling calls the decision by the flight attendants premature.

“We are involved in bargaining. I don’t think the job action is going to help the bargaining process. I think it’s an expression of frustration over the time it’s taken to lead to an agreement,” he said.

The two sides have been negotiating since October.

Sparling said it’s misleading for the company to take all of the heat for the delays.

“We certainly haven’t done anything to avoid bargaining or meeting with the other side, and I don’t think the other side has done anything to avoid bargaining or meeting with us,” he said.

“It’s just the reality of when you’ve got labour lawyers and union representatives from out of town involved. It just takes time.”

Sept. 19 was the first time the company saw a compensation proposal from the union dealing with salaries, Sparling said.

“Today, there is no dotted line that I could either accept or reject in the form of an agreement,” he said.

“Bits and pieces have come in on a piecemeal basis and probably the most significant component didn’t show up until the 19th.”

The last meeting started on Sept. 15 and was extended through the weekend.

The next meetings will be held the week of Oct. 6.

Sparling said compensation is key to any new deal. Geick said negotiations usually end with salaries because the union knows the company will have to spend money making workplace changes to deal with other issues.

Sparling acknowledges the concerns around hours, grey days and vacation time still exist.

He said many of the issues are tied to the company’s desire to avoid laying people off in the off-season.

“They’re easily resolvable by changing the policy where you crew yourself so that you’re only keeping people on the payroll you have work for. No employer can be paying people that there is no work for,” he said.

“One of the things that we try and do is level out the earnings because our flying peaks in the summer and valleys in the winter.”

Sparling said he’s floated the idea of having a core group of full-time employees and a group of seasonal workers.

That’s a discussion that will be part of the next meeting, he said.

“I think that these are all issues that can be easily resolved once we sit down and start talking about them.”

Geick said what happens next depends on a lot of things: how the company reacts and how things go at the negotiation table.

“We’re going into this right now with no intention of grounding planes.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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