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Air Canada fallout goes beyond wildcat strike

Police remove a person from the area as Air Canada baggage handlers stage a wildcat walkout at Toronto's Pearson International Airport early Friday March 23.

Victor Biro/The Canadian Press/Victor Biro/The Canadian Press

As an Air Canada concierge greeted Lisa Raitt at the luggage carousel on Thursday night, a group of baggage handlers in Toronto decided to voice their displeasure with their nemesis, the federal Labour Minister.

A series of events triggered by the landing of Ms. Raitt on a flight from North Bay sparked a wildcat strike at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, creating travel chaos for 24,000 customers across North America and placing further strain on Air Canada's labour relations.

About 15 ramp employees blocked the main exit out of the carousel section, slowly clapping in mock applause and taunting her with "nice job." The protest forced the concierge to escort Ms. Raitt through another door, but the workers kept pace. They followed as she rode up an escalator at Pearson and she waited outside for her ride home.

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Union spokesman Bill Trbovich said three workers, who "slow clapped" and heckled Ms. Raitt, have been suspended for 72 hours with pay, pending an investigation by Air Canada into their conduct. Hundreds of workers let emotions run high and left their posts because of false rumours through e-mail, texting and Facebook that those three employees had been fired, he said in an interview Friday.

Travellers are hoping that the worst of traffic chaos is over after an arbitrator drafted the truce that ended the 14-hour walkout by members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The airline obtained a court injunction on Friday night and also won a cease-and-desist ruling from the Canada Industrial Relations Board to confirm arbitrator Martin Teplitsky's decision. Any further job action will be subject to the legal weight of stiff fines.

If an illegal strike is staged in future, employees will each face fines of up to $1,000 a day and the union will face fines of up to $100,000 a day.

The ground crew started their work stoppage in Toronto on Thursday night, with the protest spreading Friday to Montreal, Quebec City and Vancouver. Air Canada delayed 200 flights and cancelled another 210 trips in moves that disrupted one-third of the airline's network across North America. An estimated 24,000 customers got caught in the snarls, or nearly one-quarter of Air Canada's daily traffic.

"The protest mushroomed and took on a life of its own," Mr. Trbovich said, emphasizing that the wildcat strike wasn't approved by leaders of the IAMAW.

Earlier this month, the Labour Minister had prevented a strike by the 8,600-member IAMAW due to start last week. "Lisa Raitt is a lightning rod," Mr. Trbovich said.

Ms. Raitt's office issued a statement to confirm that she "was followed through the terminal at Pearson airport and harassed by union members of IAMAW. The Minister did not make any comments about the union members, nor engage in conversation with them."

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The IAMAW reported that there will be no corporate disciplinary action or fines against 37 employees who had been threatened with suspension or possible termination after they walked off the job.

Air Canada said the work stoppage by baggage handlers amounted to an illegal job action, inflicting damage on the airline's brand.

"With these activities, they are not intimidating management by showing how much havoc they can create," Air Canada chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu said in an internal memo to staff on Friday night. He said he was disappointed to learn that baggage handlers "would deliberately choose to damage the company to advance their own goals and you should be too. It is this company that pays their salaries, feeds their families, covers their medical costs and benefits."

The disruptions due to the wildcat strike became far more widespread than the delays and cancellations that hit Pearson last weekend, when a combination of fog, a temporarily closed runway and some Air Canada pilots calling in sick ruined some flight schedules.

It has been a tumultuous month for Air Canada. The airline's supplier of aircraft heavy maintenance services, Aveos, shut down this week and laid off more than 2,600 employees.

Work stoppages thwarted: Ottawa's intervention

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June, 2011: Air Canada's 3,800 sales and service agents stage a three-day strike before agreeing to a contract. The Canadian Auto Workers union reaches the deal hours after Ottawa debates back-to-work legislation.

October, 2011: The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 6,800 Air Canada flight attendants, cancels a planned walkout after a move by federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt effectively renders any threatened strike illegal.

March, 2012: Ms. Raitt refers two disputes to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, a manoeuvre that blocks 8,600 ground crew from going on strike on March 12 as planned, as well as thwarting management's notice to lock out 3,000 pilots on the same day. As a precautionary measure, the Senate passes back-to-work legislation on March 15.

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About the Author

Brent Jang is a business reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. He joined the Globe in 1995. His former positions include transportation reporter in Toronto, energy correspondent in Calgary and Western columnist for Report on Business. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway student newspaper. Mr. More

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