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Air traffic controllers on partial strike

Union says money not the issue

Jennifer McPhee
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 16/02) - The Canadian Industrial Relations Board has granted Nav Canada's air traffic controllers the right to a "partial strike."

Because air traffic control is considered an essential service, controllers can't withdraw services that effect air traffic service to the public.

So unionized controllers have cut back on the training they provide to unlicensed controllers.

"All we are able to affect is training," said Tom Yakubowich regional vice president for the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association local 5454 which includes the prairies and the North.

But the union is applying to withdraw other services that could affect domestic travel, he said.

In Yellowknife, there are 10 controllers and two trainees.

The union's current collective agreement expired in March 2001.

Because of a $145-million revenue shortfall, Nav Canada increased service charges, cut and froze management's salaries and asked union members to accept a pay freeze this fiscal year. Salaries and benefits make up 72 per cent of the company's operating expenses.

The Canadian Air Traffic Control Association (CATCA) refused to accept the pay freeze. And now CATCA and Nav Canada disagree about what is fuelling the partial strike action.

Yakubowich said employees are "looking for a little more humanity in the way they schedule our shifts."

But spokesperson for Nav Canada Louis Garneau said money is behind the action.

"The controllers are saying the issue is shift work and so on," he said. "But we believe the issue is more money."

He said the controller's average work week with overtime is 40 hours, which works out to an eight-and-a-half-hour day.

Controllers work on a 28 day cycle of 17 days of work and 11 days off.

"On average, that works out to five days of work with three days off," he said.

Although shifts can range between six and 11 hours, Garneau said employees rarely work 11 hours.

"That's the exception, not the rule."

He said employees received a 30 per cent pay increase over three years in 1999 and that controllers make, on average, including overtime, $110,000.

But President of CATCA Rob Thurger strongly denies money is the issue.

"If they feel the issue on the table is money, then they fix the shifts and see what happens. They've refused to do that in the past 18 months."

He said the number of hours per week is not the problem. Nav Canada won't give employees standard shifts, he said, which makes it hard "for controllers to plan any type of lifestyle outside of air traffic control."

Averages are misleading, he added.

"They are using the averages to downplay things," he said. "We have 11 to 14 different stop and start times. We've got any number of combinations of days on and off."

He said employees do work long shifts -- sometimes longer than 10 hours.

In emergencies, this can increase to 16 hours.

"We can't continue with these types of shifts," he said. It has to change."

He did say CATCA is asking for a 21 per cent pay increase over three years.

"But demands could change depending on what Nav Canada does with shifts. We're not making this an issue of money."