The scene at Eireann Quay over the last month or so - signs, banners, lots of chanting, even more shouting - has deviated little from your textbook picket line. It's the location, it seems, that immediately comes across as striking in this case.
The in-your-face visibility is ideal, for one thing. After all, the entry route to Billy Bishop City Airport can be a natural urban chokepoint, even when there isn't a protest swarming the asphalt. Imagine the snaking, stalled lines of traffic inching toward Bathurst after a string of Q400s touch down, rudely welcoming ill-timed Torontonians home from less congested locales. If publicity is the ultimate goal of COPE's strike action against Porter Airlines, now in its seventh week, the captive - if grumbly - audience provided by the area's slap-dash urban engineering can't hurt, either.
But what serves the union's message best is the setting at 2 Eireann Quay: the chest-rattling drone of departing turboprops; the waft of diesel on the air; the biting wind; and all around, the presence of heavy development as the tunnel takes shape. For the workers tasked with fueling Porter's fleet, this is the day-to-day, naked and unforgiving.
And for Porter, it's the front line of the whole operation.
Ground crew workers from Porter FBO - an operation separate from the airline itself - first unionized back in August, forming COPE local 343. According to organizers, the catalyst was in various claims of unsafe work conditions, improper protective gear, unfair wages, and a profit-first, high-turnover corporate culture, they said, that forced employees to cut corners.
There was also a strong suggestion that Porter was too cheap to provide decent gloves.
"Before organizing," union rep Mary Stalteri told NOW, "the workers tried to get management to deal with the health and safety violations." In the spring of 2012, she said, a letter went out to senior Porter management outlining a litany of grievances.
"Nothing came of that except a meeting with some unfulfilled promises," Stalteri recalls. Taken at face value, it would seem that workers came forward, told Porter that there were serious inadequacies, and Porter balked.
To Porter, that characterization omits some factors. "The only health and safety issues discussed at the bargaining table were resolved months ago, before the strike started," Brad Cicero, Porter's director of communications, told NOW.
The evidence of that, he says, is in early coverage of then-pending strike action printed in the Toronto Star from January 8. At the time, the strike's immediate escalation principally owed itself to one thing, Stalteri maintained: Porter's plan to bring in replacement workers (scabs, strikers hissed) with allegedly inadequate training.
"The workers are concerned that poorly trained replacement workers, working excessive hours, are a danger to themselves and the traveling public," she told NOW.
"Flights are operating safely and on time," Cicero says, and "fully-trained and certified staff are currently safely serving in these roles."
Further, he says, there have been no fuelling safety issues since the union went on strike. "The training provided meets or exceeds what would be standard for any new hire."
But on the union side, workers say that fuelling safety issues leading up to the strike, in some cases going back to September, are the problem - not whether there have been further problems in the month since walking off the job.
The worst of these, supposedly, happened on or around September 19, 2012, when a fuel spill described as exceeding five litres coated the apron (where planes are parked and fueled) at Billy Bishop. In materials provided to NOW, the union contends that "Porter puts safety last," that "sand absorbent was used to absorb the spill" before being tossed into the trash, and that "smaller spills have been absorbed and shoveled into the snow bank." In a statement published in January and disseminated widely over social media, COPE claimed that Porter's response to concerns over fuel leaks was to "put a bucket under it."
The characterization was that of a profit-mad airline without the slightest regard for environment or safety.
"There is no documented spill on September 19, 2012," Cicero says, "which leads us to believe that its misinformation is purposely altered." Throughout Porter's standoff with workers, he says, the grievances raised by the union don't square with the facts.
"The union has made inconsistent, misleading, and false statements related to health, safety and compensation," he said. Most troubling are statements - many oversimplified, he suggests - connected with fuel maintenance or chemical storage.
Speaking to the bucket remedy cited by COPE as an example of Porter cutting corners, Cicero describes the airline's procedure. "Reporting to the Ministry of the Environment is not required in certain cases if proper protocol is followed," he says. "A certified process is followed to safely manage even the smallest fuel leaks. This includes a spill contingency plan with a certified bucket for minor spills and leaks."
As he reminds us, Billy Bishop is an airport. And the facilities used to manage fuel issues aren't just Porter's alone. "The airport fire hall is also available to assist with any spill greater than two litres," he says. "This includes proper containment."
There are, of course, a host of other festering, ugly disagreements between the union and Porter, exposing fault lines in the relationship ranging from compensation to the safety of workers on overnight shifts. "The FBO has only self-reported one safety issue in over a year," Cicero counters. "It was unrelated to anyone falling on the overnight shift, which we are not aware of." And, of course, there's the bottom line that Stalteri says is the ultimate slap in workers' faces: that these crews, gassing up seventy-seat airliners in subzero conditions, are paid little more than $13 an hour to do their jobs - a pay scale that Porter describes as subject to seniority.
As much as the 2013 strike has been a tug-of-war between a relatively new airline and a newer union, however, it's also been something of a rallying point for many in Toronto's waterfront community, all opposed to Porter's presence since the airline was first announced in 2006.
Many of those colourful, Occupy-esque rallies snarling the access points to Billy Bishop have been thanks to the efforts of CommunityAIR, a local residents' association opposed to the City Centre Airport. To activists like Brian Iler, the strike doesn't simply reflect the divisions at Porter's front line of operations. The issues raised by workers are taken as signs that Porter, along with other Island-based airlines, the Toronto Port Authority, and even the airport itself, operates at the expense of waterfront residents. In many ways, the current controversy, to supporters, affirms the worst-case scenario suspected all along.
"Our support comes from a common sense of being aggrieved by the Toronto Port Authority and Porter," Iler says.