Business in Vancouver

Vancouver airport in-flight catering workers threaten strike

Any picketing would target food production facilities at the airport, not the terminals

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 7:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 12:18pm

The union representing workers who provide meal service for major airlines flying out of Vancouver International Airport is threatening a labour disruption if mediation fails to prompt employer Gate Gourmet to agree to a new contract with wage increases.

The disruption would mean that airlines, such as Air Canada, British Airways and WestJet, would have to make other arrangements to get food on their planes or fly with no food service.

Unite Here Local 40 president Robert Demand said the two sides are “very far apart” whereas Gate Gourmet communications director Christina Ulosevich told Business in Vancouver that her company is “absolutely optimistic” that a deal can be reached and a strike averted.

The union held a strike vote on August 3, when 97 per cent of 327 workers voted to authorise the union to call a strike. If it does declare a strike, it must give 72 hours notice.

Demand would not provide a timeline for when a strike could be called and instead said he would see how things went in mediation.

Unite Here Local 40’s previous three-year contract expired in July and it contained a wage freeze for all three years. Demand described that freeze as a concession by the approximately 400 workers to help the company become more competitive.

“We think that Gate Gourmet has really forgotten those sacrifices,” Demand said to a media scrum outside the Labour Relations Board building at Oceanic Plaza in downtown Vancouver.

“We’ve seen that they’ve been incredibly greedy.”

Gate Gourmet is part of Gategroup Holding AG, which is a publicly listed company on the SIX Swiss Exchange. It serves food to more than 350 million passengers annually at about 100 airports around the globe.

Some of the grievances that Demand relayed were that Gate Gourmet:

•does not pay overtime to workers who work six or more days in a row,
•fails to provide accumulated seniority to injured workers during time that they are off sick;
•pressures workers who are sick to return to work; and,
•does not adhere to safety standards.

He claimed that the company does not follow a safety checklist on vehicles and that this has caused some worker injuries.

Ulosevich rejected that, saying that the company has achieved Occupational Safety Standard of Excellence certification in 2009 from the Manufacturing Safety Alliance of BC and has to pass rigorous annual audits.

“We certainly take our commitment to our people very seriously and our legal obligations seriously,” Ulosevich said.

“We do comply with laws that protect the rights of our people. That is of paramount importance to Gate Gourmet.”

She added that the company also follows all requirements in the last contract, which expired in July, and that she was not surprised that the union would be holding media scrums to voice its position during mediation.

Gate Gourmet’s workers’ starting wage is C$12.29 (US$9.46) per hour. The average wage for those who have worked at the company for five years is about C$19 (US$14.63) per hour and the highest paid workers make about C$22 (US$16.95) per hour.

Demand would not say what percentage raise the union is asking for. Ulosevich, similarly, said it would be “inappropriate” to go into those details given that mediation is in full swing. She said that Gate Gourmet is prepared to offer an “enhanced” contract to its workers.

Meanwhile, Vancouver East MP Jenny Kwan was at the media scrum and she revealed that the BC caucus of the federal NDP has sent a letter to “all the major airlines, including Air Canada, asking that they ask Gate Gourmet to negotiate fairly.”

When asked why a federal political party was injecting itself into a union’s dispute with an employer by contacting customers, she said that the letter was meant to relay that it is important for employers to “engage honestly” at the bargaining table.