'Contract flip' at Montreal airport will vaporize hundreds of unionized jobs, lead to chaos, union says

A traveller at the Montreal airport. Swissport, a company that provides ground handling services at the airport was not awarded a contract and will stop operating there in the summer of 2023.  (Ivanoh Demers/CBC/Radio-Canada - image credit)
A traveller at the Montreal airport. Swissport, a company that provides ground handling services at the airport was not awarded a contract and will stop operating there in the summer of 2023. (Ivanoh Demers/CBC/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Two unions are criticizing a "contract flip" at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, which, they say, will result in hundreds of unionized workers losing their jobs and could cause widespread chaos at the airport.

Earlier this month, Aéroports de Montréal (ADM), the authority that oversees the Montreal airport, said a committee made up of airline representatives selected three companies to perform ground handling services at the airport.

Ground handling includes customer service, loading and unloading customer baggage, freight and cargo and refuelling planes, among other important services.

The committee selected two new companies: Menzies Aviation and Samsic Assistance, which do not currently provide ground handling services at the airport. It renewed the contract of TSAS, a subsidiary of Avjet.

Swissport, which currently does ground handling at the Montreal airport, was not selected.

Two unions, Unifor and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, IAMAW, condemned the decision to award the licences to two new companies, saying the end of the Swissport contract will lead to the loss of unionized jobs.

Swissport CEO Charles Roberge said in an interview the contract loss at the Montreal airport would lead to 195 jobs being cut.

Peter Tsoukalas, the general chairperson of IAMAW District 140, said neither Menzies nor Samsic employs unionized workers. CBC has requested a comment from the two companies but has not yet heard back.

Unifor said in a statement that the move will leave up to 150 Unifor members without jobs by the end of June.

Tsoukalas said 175 of IAMAW's unionized members were notified their jobs will cease as of June 1.

Many of them, Tsoukalas said, may have to reapply with the new ground handling companies to get work, where they are likely to have lower wages and lose benefits and seniority they previously had as part of the union.

Timing could lead to summer vacation travel problems

The contract flip, as Tsoulakas referred to the move, coming into effect in late spring or early summer is also likely to contribute to problems because the airport is already dealing with staffing shortages, he said.

The contract changes drew the attention of opposition politicians in Ottawa.

"Montreal Airport's lack of respect for these unionized workers is disgusting and unacceptable. We all need to work for workers' rights and better working conditions," said Alexandre Boulerice, the NDP Labour Critic, in a joint media release with the IAMAW.

Bloc Québécois MP Louise Chabot also condemned the contract changes.

"The Bloc Québécois strongly denounces this practice, which denies the basic rights of workers," she said in the same media release.

ADM said in a statement the decision was made to "optimize operational performance, improve operational safety and environmental performance of ground handlers."

"The issuance of ground handling licences will help better manage ground handling at YUL, which plays a significant role in the quality of services offered to passengers," the airport authority said in its statement.

The newly chosen companies can start operating as of April 1. Current ground handlers who have not been selected, like Swissport, can operate until June 30, ADM said, "or even ask for an extension up to the end of the transition period, on Oct. 28, 2023."

But John Gradek, a lecturer at McGill University and academic co-ordinator of the university's supply chain, logistics, operations and aviation management program, said he was worried April 1, 2023 will be too soon a start date for a new company to take over the complex work of ground handling at the Montreal airport.

"Both [new] companies are experienced when it comes to ground handling contracts. I'm not criticizing the company, I'm just concerned," he said.

"They're going to have to hire people. They're going to have to make sure that people are trained and that they get the experience that's needed to efficiently handle the operations that are going to be thrown at them."

Peak travel season begins in mid-may, Gradek said, which leaves the new contractors little time to prepare for the rush.

Last summer, Gradek said a similar lack of experience led to delays at airports across the country.

"I don't think Montrealers want to go through the same level of anxiety this coming summer as we did last summer," he said.

ADM said the contract change affects ground handling services for airlines that do not have their own ground handlers. Air Canada, Delta, American Airlines and Air Creebec are not affected because they have their own ground service contractors and Air Transat was already operating with TSAS.

"All in all, these compagnies represent more than 80 per cent of YUL air services," an ADM spokesperson said.