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The Globe and Mail

Air Canada pilot union calls for strike vote

Air Canada aircraft are seen at Toronto Pearson International Airport, September 20, 2011.


Air Canada is striving to avert a showdown next week after the union representing pilots called a strike vote.

The Montreal-based carrier, which announced Thursday that it lost $249-million last year, will be in a position to lock out 3,000 members of the Air Canada Pilots Association or impose new terms and conditions on them on Valentine's Day.

But Air Canada chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu said management is willing to stay at the bargaining table to discuss a potential deal, even after a cooling-off period expires Tuesday. "We are prepared to continue negotiation beyond that date, and have indicated to ACPA that we intend to not impose a new collective agreement in the near term," he said during a conference call with analysts.

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Mr. Rovinescu made the comment after ACPA chairman Gary Tarves alleged that Air Canada forced the union into a corner by demanding too many concessions during mediated contract talks. "Under these circumstances, the time for you to make your decision has come. Fellow Air Canada pilots, we have no option other than to commence a vote seeking a mandate to defend your rights and interests," Captain Tarves said in a memo to pilots.

Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt and officials from her department met with representatives from ACPA and Air Canada on Monday. In October, Air Canada flight attendants cancelled a planned walkout after a move by Ms. Raitt effectively rendered any threatened strike illegal.

The previous ACPA contract expired on March 31, 2011. Last May, about 67 per cent of the pilots who voted rejected a proposed contract for the union, casting uncertainty over the airline's proposals for starting a low-cost carrier and introducing pension reforms.

Capt. Tarves said bargaining is in a crucial phase and there aren't signs of management budging.

The union's negotiating committee finished presentations to pilots Thursday, clearing the way for a five-day strike vote. The voting period is shorter than the traditional 10 days. ACPA has a litany of complaints over management's "extreme" changes envisaged for subcontracting regional flying and outsourcing the planned discount leisure airline, possibly based offshore.

If ACPA obtains its strike mandate, the union will be in a position on Tuesday to issue 72-hour notice of walkout on Feb. 17, but Capt. Tarves emphasized that no decision has been made on staging a work stoppage. "We are not initiating any industrial action at this point, whatsoever. That would be a separate decision and would depend on the corporation's actions Feb. 14 and beyond," he said.

Bargaining talks between Air Canada and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers are in conciliation – a phase that is set to expire on Feb. 18. Mechanics, baggage handlers, cargo agents, cleaners and electricians are part of IAMAW, which is upset about a series of layoffs this year at Air Canada and a former division of the airline called Aveos Fleet Performance Inc.

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Air Canada said Thursday that its loss in 2011 widened to $249-million, compared with a $24-million loss in 2010. It lost $60-million in the fourth quarter, compared with an $89-million profit in the same period in 2010.

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