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Air Canada, unions begin contract talks Add to ...

Contract talks begin this week between Air Canada and the union representing airport customer service agents and call centre staff, the first in a series of bargaining sessions as labour leaders focus on the carrier's climb out of its financial hole.

Negotiators for the Canadian Auto Workers union will meet Friday with management amid a business climate in the airline industry that has vastly improved since the last round of talks during the recession in 2009.

Montreal-based Air Canada narrowly averted filing for bankruptcy protection in the summer of 2009, when management secured pension and labour pacts with the CAW and four other unions.

The CAW's collective agreement lapses on Feb. 28, while March 31 is the contract expiry date for the rest - the Air Canada Pilots Association, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Airline Dispatchers Association and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

"Our work needs to be valued, appreciated and paid accordingly. Significant wage gains will go a long way to addressing our need for recognition and appreciation," the CAW said in a newsletter to its 3,800 members. "As the global economy recovers, so too will investments for pension plans. We will be vigilant in protecting our pension plans, as secure pension benefits for our current and future retirees must be maintained. We do not intend to have this round of bargaining sidetracked by pension discussions."

Industry analysts say new labour contacts will likely lead to increased expenses for wages and pensions in the coming years at Air Canada, which reports its fourth-quarter and 2010 results on Thursday. Chorus Aviation Inc., which owns regional carrier Jazz Air LP, releases its financial report on Tuesday.

WestJet's board of directors will meet in Toronto this week as the carrier seeks to promote its flights in Central Canada and the East Coast. Calgary-based WestJet announces its results on Wednesday.

With the economy on the mend, Raymond James Ltd. analyst Ben Cherniavsky notes that Air Canada and WestJet should be able to offset rising fuel bills with higher ticket prices.

The CAW hopes to parlay Air Canada's recovery into gains for the rank and file. "CAW members have made tremendous sacrifices in order to help get Air Canada back on track," the CAW said in its newsletter. "We are working twice as hard as a decade ago and our wages have not even kept pace with inflation."

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