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Air Canada ground crew launch legal challenge to back-to-work legislation

Air Canada employees walk through Terminal 1 during a one hour protest at Pearson International airport in Toronto, March 9, 2012.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/j.p. moczulski The Globe and Mail

The union representing Air Canada 's ground crew is mounting a legal challenge to Ottawa's back-to-work legislation.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers had planned to strike on March 12, but federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt thwarted the job action and then, as a precautionary measure, the government passed back-to-work legislation in mid-March.

Even so, hundreds of IAMAW members staged a 14-hour wildcat strike, disrupting an estimated one-third of Air Canada's flights on March 23.

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Dave Ritchie, the union's Canadian general vice-president, said in a statement Monday that the Conservative government is denying his members the right to strike while sending the dispute to arbitration. "The government did not allow the free collective bargaining process to run its course," he said.

Ms. Raitt referred Air Canada's dispute with the IAMAW and a fight with its pilots to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, effectively making it illegal to have any strike or lockout.

The Air Canada Pilots Association launched its own legal challenge to the back-to-work move last month, saying it is seeking to restore its members' rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Mr. Ritchie said the IAMAW is making a similar argument. "The freedom of association is one of the fundamental rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms," he said.

Ashley Kelahear, a spokeswoman for the Labour Minister, said in a statement that the federal government believes it's crucial to keep Air Canada operating. "By introducing and passing back-to-work legislation, we put the public interest and the Canadian economy first to ensure that Canadians can continue to fly," Ms. Kelahear said.

Air Canada had moved to lock out its pilots last month. The pilots' union said Ms. Raitt will appoint an arbitrator after the two sides in the dispute submit names of candidates by April 10.

Management needs to realize that "when it comes to an arbitrated collective agreement, our loss is their loss and more importantly, our win is their win," negotiators for the pilots said in a newsletter. "We are this airline, and destroying us destroys this airline."

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The pilots' union said it's unfair that Air Canada chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu is now eligible for a $5-million retention bonus after serving three years as CEO.

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