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An Air Canada aircraft is unloaded at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Enfield, N.S. on Wednesday, March 7, 2012. (Andrew Vaughan/Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
An Air Canada aircraft is unloaded at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Enfield, N.S. on Wednesday, March 7, 2012. (Andrew Vaughan/Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Move by Labour Minister quashes fears of Air Canada flight disruptions Add to ...

Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt has saved March break for travellers, upsetting Air Canada’s major unions while relieving the fears of the airline’s customers during one of the busiest vacation periods of the year.

Ms. Raitt referred two Air Canada labour disputes to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, a manoeuvre that blocks 8,600 ground crew from going on strike on Monday as planned, as well as thwarting management’s notice to lock out 3,000 pilots on the same day.

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Travellers are breathing a sigh of relief after she warded off work stoppages at the country’s largest airline. Air Canada alone expects to carry more than 100,000 passengers a day over the next two weeks. Ontario and Nova Scotia have their March breaks next week, for instance, while British Columbia’s spring hiatus will be the week after next.

On Thursday morning, Air Canada served its lockout notice to pilots after delivering an ultimatum to union leaders to accept management’s latest offer.

Travellers booked on March flights already faced anxious times because of a potential strike on Monday by airport workers.

By late Thursday afternoon, Ms. Raitt asked the labour board to “determine the activities that Air Canada may be required to maintain as relates to the health and safety of Canadians.” Industry experts said her decision amounted to a legal tactic to prevent any disruption to Air Canada’s flights, buying time for management and union leaders to find a way to break the impasse or potentially face binding arbitration.

“Our government is concerned that the work stoppages are going to have an effect, both on our national economy and of course on the Canadian travelling public,” said Ms. Raitt, who relied on a similar referral to the labour board last October to prevent 6,800 flight attendants from walking off the job.

Captain Paul Strachan, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association, said the track record of Ms. Raitt stepping into recent disputes at the airline has been a lingering concern. “It does affect the bargaining landscape, absolutely,” he said, describing Ottawa’s power to intervene as the “sword of Damocles hanging over the heads” of union negotiators.

“I asked Lisa Raitt to stay out of the process, but she didn’t, so I’m disappointed in her move. I’m not too happy about it,” added Dave Ritchie, Canadian general vice-president for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Passengers, however, welcomed Thursday’s developments. Cindi Thompson, an administrative assistant at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., will be flying Friday to San Francisco to meet her sister for a getaway, with the return flight back to British Columbia scheduled for Monday.

“I’m so happy there’s no strike. It’s definitely reduced my stress levels. My concern was how am I going to get home, though there are worse places to be stuck than San Francisco,” Ms. Thompson said.

On Wednesday, the IAMAW issued a strike notice, saying it would be in a position to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. on Monday. Air Canada’s largest union represents mechanics, baggage handlers, cargo agents, aircraft cleaners and electricians. Pension reform, wages, scheduling night shifts, mandatory overtime and the role of part-time staff are among the key issues, according to IAMAW members.

The pilots are worried about Air Canada’s plans to outsource more flights, notably to a proposed low-cost carrier to be based in Canada, with a foreign airline as a minority partner.

George Smith, a former Air Canada director of employee relations who now teaches at Queen’s University, said interference from Ottawa will ultimately hurt labour and management.

He argues that if the disputes are placed in the hands of arbitrators, management is unlikely to get what it wants.

“I think Air Canada is making at least a partial argument that they need some radical change in order to be competitive and they simply won’t get that outside the free collective bargaining process, where it may take a strike or lockout to achieve that,” he said.

Toronto lawyer Lorenzo Lisi, a labour law expert who specializes in representing employers, said Ottawa’s move provides some “breathing room” to all sides. He said the parties are using the legitimate and legal bargaining tactics that are available.

Air Canada said protracted contract talks with unionized pilots had already stretched beyond 18 months. “The offer we tabled keeps our pilots’ salaries, pensions, benefits and working conditions in the top quartile. It also removes restrictions that constrain the company from being an effective competitor in a challenging industry that is growing evermore competitive on a daily basis,” Rick Allen, Air Canada’s senior director of flight operations, said in a bulletin to pilots Thursday morning.

Management’s latest offer would have provided pilots with wage hikes of 2 per cent in the first year, 4 per cent in the second, 2 per cent in the third and 3 per cent in each of the final two years.

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