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Air Canada planes on the tarmac at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

MARK BLINCH/Reuters

The union representing Air Canada flight attendants cancelled a strike planned for Thursday after Ottawa intervened, triggering criticisms about political meddling to quash workers' rights.

Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt asked the Canada Industrial Relations Board to review stalled contract talks at the airline. In so doing, she effectively rendered the strike illegal, so "there will be no right to strike or lock out," the Canadian Union of Public Employees said in a memo to 6,800 Air Canada flight attendants. "Our strike is suspended indefinitely. Therefore, the union advises you that you cannot strike."

The CIRB said that under the Canada Labour Code, any work stoppage must be suspended pending the review. As well, the board has been asked to either impose a settlement or refer the matter to binding arbitration, if it's deemed that bargaining talks are a lost cause at Air Canada.

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Ginette Brazeau, the CIRB's executive director, said in an interview Wednesday that the board didn't need to make any ruling because Ms. Raitt's request automatically got processed through the labour code. The result is that any strike by the flight attendants would have been declared illegal.

The union faced the pressure of potential fines of $10,000 on each Air Canada CUPE labour leader, a penalty of $1,000 a day for CUPE and the possibility of criminal contempt of court, if Air Canada were to pursue the case.

"This outrageous interference by the Harper government is truly disappointing to the union, and the union is currently reviewing its next steps," said CUPE's bargaining committee.

CUPE had said Wednesday morning that its cabin crews were still preparing to go on strike at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday.

With a walkout averted, Air Canada breathed a sigh of relief over the CIRB's review. "We accordingly expect that this process will lead to a definitive resolution for our customers. In the meantime, it remains business as usual at Air Canada and all flights will continue to operate as scheduled," the airline said.

In a statement, Ms. Raitt said the Conservative government "received a strong mandate to protect the Canadian economy and Canadian jobs," adding that she asked the CIRB to "determine how best to maintain and secure industrial peace."

CUPE released voting results on Sunday, disclosing that its members rejected a tentative agreement, marking the second time that flight attendants have spurned a proposed contract in the past three months.

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While Air Canada has sought to smooth over relations with employees in recent years, the bitter dispute "has poisoned the well. This is a major setback for management's goal to improve the corporate culture," said Raymond James Ltd. analyst Ben Cherniavsky.

Queen's University business professor Douglas Reid said Ms. Raitt moved aggressively to halt any strike, finding a loophole through the CIRB to accomplish her mission since MPs don't return to the House of Commons until Monday. That means back-to-work legislation would have been introduced days after a strike began. "The system is supposed to allow people to go on strike. A strike is a way to get the attention of management," Mr. Reid said.

For many flight attendants, the showstopper is management's proposal to launch a low-cost carrier, which would introduce a lower wage scale. On social media, employees said the dispute could have been easily resolved if Air Canada made certain changes, notably agreeing to clauses for job security for existing employees to protect them against the future expansion of the discount leisure carrier.

CUPE leaders say the union still maintains the right to represent the new hires, should management decide to launch the discount division, but the rank-and-file are upset at their own union brass.

Other sticking points include wages and working conditions. Many flight attendants say they want to accelerate the implementation date for improving work rules for "continuous duty days."

CUPE expressed disappointment at Ottawa's intervention. "Let's call a spade a spade. This government is not your friend. It is trying to take away your right to strike and it will use whatever tools and tricks that it can," said a memo signed by seven union negotiators with the Air Canada component of CUPE.

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