As part of UCTE’s continued exploration of its history, comes part 1 of a a3-part story about our first strike

Part 1: 1974 – Firefighter strike or was it a study session?

In 1967, after decades of lobbying and agitation by the staff associations, Parliament passed Bill-170, the Public Service Staff Relations Act, which finally gave federal employees the right to unionize and to strike if they wanted. No more going cap in hand to request improvement in wages and benefits but instead the power to demand was now in the hands of federal public employees.

Federal employees were quick to sign union cards and in September of 1967, the Public Service Alliance of Canada gave notice to bargain for the Heating and Power (HP) and Firefighter (FR) members. The first ever PSAC collective agreements were for these two bargaining units, signed in April of 1968.  The new union only formed in 1966 was off to a fast start.

By 1968 the PSAC was the bargaining unit for 53 groups. Of those only 8 were on the conciliation/strike route.  Despite that the membership made it clear in those early days that they were going to take their fate into their own hands. The first strike in the history of the PSAC was a wildcat in the spring of 1970 by customs officers at the Windsor-Detroit crossing. The following year the Union of National Defence Employees took the first legal strike against Defence Construction at two locations. Then in the early 1970 members of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees started taking job actions by holding wildcat strikes.

PART 2: The strike spreads… or was it still a study session?

As part of UCTE’s continued exploration of its history, comes Part 2 of a 3-part story about our first strike

With pent up frustrations finally having an outlet the firefighter strike starts to spread. A week later 36 Firefighters walked off the job in Winnipeg. On Thursday April 11, Edmonton Firefighters join the strike. Don Duthie, Local 20219 President said “It’s become a matter of pride now, more than money. You couldn’t drive the guys back with a bulldozer.” On Thursday, the federal court injunction expired without any action being taken in bolding the membership.

Firemen Shut Toronto Airport was the newspaper headline as members walked off their jobs at noon April 11th. These members were joining the firefighters in Halifax and Fredericton, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and the 11 BC airports who all had withdrawn from work. The Ministry of Transport responded to the situation by banning all commercial flights to and from the Toronto Airport. Then late in the day, news came that Calgary members had scheduled a 6 pm “study session” and would be walking out. Since the strike was illegal under the act, and was not authorized by the PSAC, the members had taken to calling their actions “study sessions” instead of strikes. But every day the news reminded the public that commercial air traffic in Canada was stalled because of the firefighters’ “studies”.

The Treasury Board offer of a four-stage increase to $1,200 a year in a 26-month agreement had been recommended by the bargaining committee. Jim Wyllie, Vice-President of the PSAC, who was negotiating for the firefighters, told the media that the union is taking steps to mail ratification kits to members. Reports from across Canada however indicated that the union locals, with a membership of 1,436 federal airport firefighters, would reject the Treasury Board’s offer. By the second week of the walkouts, Montreal Airport had joined the strike after Treasury Board said the Federal Government cannot improve on its pay boost offer. Firefighters at St. John’s airport in Newfoundland said they would walk off the job to support higher pay.

If the federal government did not have its hands full already, air traffic controllers rejected a pay offer of 7.5 per cent in the first year and 7 per cent in the second voting 91 per cent to give their executive authority to call a strike if necessary.

Standing strong

The votes were in, and the firefighters rejected the proposal settlement that would have given them a 31.3 per cent pay hike by June of 1976, increasing wages over the period from $9,160 to $12,030 a year. Vancouver Airport firefighters said they would settle for the $12,000 now and another $500 in a year but the government did not respond.

When Treasury Board President Bud Drury came to Victoria to speak to the Chamber of Commerce, he was meet by 60 DND firefighters who picketed the luncheon.  DND firefighters at BC airports had now joined the strike.  Dale Hitchen, a representative for the DND group, said the “main point was to make Drury aware of the members unhappiness with both the PSAC bargaining and Treasury Board’s wage offer.”

The TB President held a meeting with representatives from the “action committees” of Victoria and Vancouver airport firefighters, and the Department of National Defence firefighters in Esquimalt but he could not appease them. Back in Ottawa, Transportation Minister Jean Marchand said if the countries 2,000 controllers joined the firefighters and called a strike, all the airports in Canada “will be closed.”

Toronto International Airport continued to operate despite the walkout by firefighters, but operations were reduced by 60 per-cent according to management. In Edmonton, the firefighters who walked off the job on Saturday April 13th said they planned to stay out indefinitely. UCTE Shop Steward Ron Lovett said his 35 members were pleased that the Toronto International Airport firefighters had joined the work stoppage. He said the Toronto move adds considerable support to the rising ranks of airport firefighters now off the job across Canada.

Tom Stoyanoff conducts a Firefighters “study session” at the Avion Hotel Toronto. (Toronto Star Geoff Goode 1974)

To put the frustrations of the membership at the federal airports in perspective, labour relations in the country were not good in the spring of 1974. The Ottawa Citizen dedicated a full page of its Friday April 19 edition to special coverage of labour issues in Canada. Postal workers, members of CUPW, were in negotiations. Mediation for Air Traffic Controllers was underway. And the Great Lakes Pilots were on strike with the government threatening to legislate them back to work.

The walkouts by UCTE members meant flights into Toronto and Montreal airports were now being diverted to the much smaller airport such as Ottawa which was staffed by military firefighters and so was still operational. One ironic headline read, “Study sessions are not strikes, firefighters claim.” But strike or not, they were not staffing the airports.

The new Governor General, Jules Léger, was visiting the west for the first time since his appointment. Because of the airport firefighters strike, he decided to take a helicopter rather than a regular airline flight to Comox on Vancouver Island. A spokesperson for the Governor General said the party decided to go by helicopter because “we really didn’t want to be strike breakers.” Now even the Governor General was giving the federal government a headache by looking like he supported the firefighters.

By April 23 it was clear that there was solidarity in the rejection of the government offer, 100% rejection from the Montreal local and 100% rejection from Vancouver. As the votes continued to arrive at the PSAC in Ottawa the rejection of the offer was clear.  At this point the firefighters called for arbitration only to have the PSAC reject it as “unacceptable.” But then so did the federal government when Prime Minister Trudeau told the House of Commons “his government will not end the right to strike.”

The following day the headlines read, Air Canada pilots call for strike over layoffs in firemen’s walkout. The reduction of service at the affected airports resulted in almost 4,800 AC employees, or 18% of its workforce, being laid off temporarily. Air traffic in Canada was mostly grounded thanks to the UCTE firefighters. But would they succeed in winning their demands?