In early December Regional Executive Vice-President Jamey Mills met with members of UNDE Local 21018 to hear firsthand about the challenges they are facing with their employer, IMP Aerospace. Since the last round of negotiations in 2020, the Local has lost just under 50 percent of its workforce with only 27 members remaining. The overwhelming majority of members who have left are search and rescue helicopter technicians who have gone on to pursue higher paying positions in the aircraft maintenance industry, often outside the Comox Valley.
During his visit, REVP Mills learned that retention and recruitment are serious issues for this local with only four remaining members under 40 and just three under 35. The REVP also heard from members that over half of those who have chosen to stay at IMP Comox have had to take a second job just to make ends meet. This is not a sustainable work-life balance.
Local President Jamie Oyakawa explained that with current housing prices and the cost of living in the Comox Valley, coupled with the low wages at IMP that are well under the industry average, members at IMP are struggling. Yet, as essential service employees, they have no ability to strike to take job action to advocate for better wages.
Oyakawa noted that, “The pressure on our members is getting worse and worse. The holes created by maintenance technicians leaving Comox cannot be filled by relocating workers that are needed on the other coast. Our members are feeling the brunt of this and we need the employer to address our dwindling workforce with permanent hires.”
This situation has made for a near impossible round of collective bargaining, which was set to start last summer. The employer has repeatedly stalled and avoided making any efforts to come to the table with a reasonable offer. In fact, the employer cancelled bargaining dates in both August and September. When the team was able to finally meet with the employer in October with conciliation assistance, no movement was made.
While this has been ongoing at the bargaining table, IMP has found yet another tactic to sidestep making any meaningful progress to hire for the vacant maintenance technician positions in Comox and address wage issues. The employer began forcing IMP Aerospace workers from across the country in Nova Scotia and from fellow PSAC Local 90120 in Gander, Newfoundland to temporarily relocate to Comox to fill staffing shortages.
The employer contends that they can legally relocate PSAC workers from Gander using a memorandum of understanding to justify their request, and IMP has set a schedule well into 2024 with no end in sight. However, PSAC has emphasized that the memorandum was established for emergency, short term, scenarios, not to staff another location because IMP cannot properly fill positions here in BC.
After hearing from members, REVP Mills remarked that, “It just doesn’t make any sense why IMP would want to pay for workers to fly across the country, put them up in hotels with rental cars, pay their travel per diems, etc. for weeks at a time when they could instead permanently fill vacant positions with people from the community by paying a decent wage.
“Taxpayers clearly aren’t getting what they’re paying for. IMP has allowed both Gander and Comox to operate on skeleton crews, borrowing for one base to fill shortages at another. This contractor is raking in huge profits from the Federal government, while leaving essential search and rescue equipment vulnerable because they won’t pay a fair wage and fully staff helicopter maintenance crews.”
The union is scheduled to continuing bargaining with IMP and believes that the staffing issue can be addressed by fairly compensating workers in Comox and Gander. IMP would not be losing workers and would, indeed, be able to recruit much needed staff in Comox if they paid them a fair, comparable wage to what others in the aerospace industry make.
Instead of employing this heavy-handed approach, and forcing workers to fly across the country to Comox, IMP needs to meaningfully recruit and staff their Comox location with workers here.
This understaffing at IMP Comox is putting Canadian lives at risk: these mechanics are working every day to ensure that search and rescue helicopters are deployable. Pulling workers from one coast to another is just filling the gaps here in Comox while leaving less workers on the east coast for emergencies there instead of coming up with long term solutions.