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labour relations

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, March 7, 2012.Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa is mulling over its options to prevent an Air Canada strike looming next week, when many Canadians will be travelling on March break.

Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt issued a statement in the House of Commons on Wednesday urging both sides to return to negotiations.

"Our government is very concerned about the matter because, as pointed out, this is a high-peak travel time, especially for hard-working Canadian families during the March break," she said. "We do encourage both parties to step back from the breach, to go back to the table and to, indeed, find their way around a work stoppage and restore confidence to the travelling public."

She made the comments after Air Canada's largest union served strike notice. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers will be in a position to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. on Monday. The 8,600-member IAMAW represents mechanics, baggage handlers, cargo agents, aircraft cleaners and electricians.

"If we hit the lines, this airline is grounded," said Dave Ritchie, the IAMAW's Canadian general vice-president.

But some industry observers expect Ottawa to intervene to avert a strike or limit any walkout to a couple of days at most.

Robert Kokonis, president of airline consulting firm AirTrav Inc., said Ms. Raitt's track record in 2011 suggests that Ottawa won't tolerate a labour disruption because of the ripple effects on the Canadian economy.

Last June, Air Canada's sales and service agents staged a three-day strike, before agreeing to a contract. The Canadian Auto Workers union reached the deal hours after Ottawa debated back-to-work legislation. The airline kept the bulk of its flight schedule intact last June by deploying managers to replace unionized staff.

In October, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents Air Canada flight attendants, cancelled a planned walkout after a move by Ms. Raitt effectively rendered any threatened strike illegal.

Air Canada is playing down the possibility of widespread cancellations of its flights next week. "Should a settlement not be reached and the IAMAW commences job action, the airline will endeavour to minimize inconvenience to its customers," the country's largest carrier said. "In the meantime, Air Canada continues to operate its normal schedule without disruption."

Ms. Raitt didn't specify whether she favoured arbitration or back-to-work measures or some other strategy to ward off a strike.

One of her officials later confirmed on behalf of the minister that back-to-work legislation is an option. Government officials said it was too soon to discuss the technicalities around that scenario. While formal notices to fast track back-to-work legislation remain on the official Parliamentary order paper – remnants from Air Canada's fall labour battle with flight attendants – the government would likely have to file fresh motions for this dispute. That would mean any back-to-work legislation could not be passed until some time next week at the earliest.

While the House of Commons will be sitting next week, a break is slated for the week of March 19.

Pension reform, wages, scheduling night shifts, mandatory overtime and the role of part-time staff are among the key issues, according to IAMAW members.

On Feb. 10, IAMAW negotiators signed a four-year tentative pact, saying the deal provided "wage and premium increases, improved benefits and secures a defined benefit pension fund for the members." But 65.6 per cent of members who cast ballots in a ratification process voted against the proposed deal. As well, 78 per cent voted in favour of a strike mandate.

Duncan Dee, an Air Canada executive vice-president, said the union's strike notice will hit the nerves of thousands of vacation-bound customers.

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