Ground staff striking at Geneva International Airport have voted to continue their week-long protest action over salary and work conditions.
The strike by Swissport staff, mainly from the baggage handling sector, has so far been limited to a few flight delays, delayed luggage and longer waiting times for baggage collection. But the firm says it is on top of these problems.
"The proposal made by the employer was a long way from strikers’ expectations,” Yves Mugny, secretary of the Public Services Union (SSP), told swissinfo.ch “The staff are very motivated, angry and ready to hold out for a long time.”
He added that strike action was slowly spreading and gaining support from ground staff in other sectors.
Late on Thursday evening strikers rejected a financial package proposed by Swissport: an additional SFr100 ($97.2) per month and an increase in pay for work during irregular hours. They are holding out for a SFr250 monthly rise, among other measures.
This move followed 13 hours of talks in Geneva between protesters, union representatives, Swissport executives, and Geneva Employment Minister François Longchamp, who is also the president of Geneva airport.
Earlier in the day around 100 baggage handlers and union members protested in the centre of Geneva and outside the cantonal employment service.
Swissport ground staff launched their strike action on January 2. They are calling for an improved collective work agreement, specifically for airport businesses, wage increases and better work organisation.
They say competition between private handling firms at the state-owned airport is driving down costs for which airlines are charged. This has a direct impact on baggage handlers wages and conditions, they argue.
“Strikers start on very modest salaries (starting gross monthly salary of SFr3,500) and haven’t had a significant rise for years. What’s worse is that their salaries are now actually lower than before the Swissair collapse [in 2002],” said Mugny.
Negotiations remain deadlocked. Swissport says the strikers and their “unsympathetic” union have unrealistic demands given the current economic climate.
After a calamitous year for the airlines in 2009 in terms of passenger movements and freight traffic, 2010 will not be much better, say executives. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has cut its 2010 forecast and now expects an aggregate loss of over $5 billion, which will have a knock-on effect in the ground-handling field, they claim.
“Our clients are in difficulty and the airline business is very fragile,” Swissport Director-General Michel Glorieux told journalists on Friday. “We have to face this reality.
The week-long action has been coordinated during one of the busiest periods of the year, with tens of thousands of winter snow fans flying into and out of Geneva.
The strike by baggage handlers for two companies, Dnata [which ended its action on January 3] and Swissport, seemed to catch airlines and staff by surprise last weekend, affecting mainly baggage sorting activities.
But the firm is minimising the impact of the strike on ongoing airport operations.
“Swissport has already taken all the measures necessary to ensure there are no problems with operations at Geneva airport, even if the strike continues,” it said in a news release on Friday.
It said additional Swissport staff had been drafted in from Zurich and Basel to support the Geneva workforce, especially during the forthcoming busy weekend. This would not affect operations at those airports though.
Flight delays at Geneva airport over the past week had been substantially reduced from the levels seen the previous weekend, and the situation continues to improve, it said.
“We are optimistic that operations will not be too affected,” said airport spokesman Bertrand Staempfli.
He added the impact on operations and travellers had been “limited” and staff had returned the 5,000 suitcases and other items of luggage that had been held up in Geneva.
“They’ve all been sorted out,” he stated.
Simon Bradley in Geneva, swissinfo.ch
In October Geneva airport inaugurated a new terminal building, the first part of a SFr250 million ($248.5 million) expansion and revamp.
The terminal, which took three years to construct, has added 40 per cent more room to the airport.
Other projects are now scheduled to begin. A new, 850-metre-long wing to welcome long-haul passengers should break ground early in 2010.
Nearly 11.53 million passengers used Geneva airport in 2008, making it Switzerland's second-busiest.
Zurich remains the country's most frequently used airport, with more than 22 million passengers flying in or out of Switzerland's largest city in 2008.