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Maintenance workers reject deal with Air CanadaReuters

Members of Air Canada's largest union have rejected a tentative pact, opting instead to support a strike mandate.

On Feb. 10, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers signed a four-year pact on behalf of mechanics, baggage handlers, cargo agents, aircraft cleaners and electricians.

The IAMAW said at the time that the deal would provide "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 voted down the tentative agreement in a ratification process. As well, 78 per cent of those who voted chose to favour a strike mandate, though the union hasn't issued the requisite 72-hour notice of any walkout.

"People are really, really frightened about their futures. They're frustrated with their wages," IAMAW spokesman Bill Trbovich said in an interview Wednesday.

The conciliation phase in contract talks originally had been set to expire on Feb. 18. Factoring in a cooling-off period, the union could be in a position in mid-March to call a strike, if necessary, Mr. Trbovich said.

The tentative pact for maintenance workers promised a lump sum equal to 2 per cent of the regular yearly base wage, then annual wage increases of 2 per cent over two years, followed by 3 per cent in the final year. Many of the airport workers stood to receive improvements in vacation time and a 30-minute paid lunch, a benefit that they gave up during Air Canada's financial restructuring in 2003-04.

Existing staff would have adhered to their defined benefit pensions while new hires were to be placed in a separate defined benefit system modified to incorporate the participation of other corporations where the IAMAW represents employees.

"We are the largest unionized workforce at Air Canada," the IAMAW said in a bulletin to its members. "Without us, it's all grounded."

The union's Toronto local is planning a rally on Friday at Pearson International Airport, saying employees will "send a loud message to Air Canada management that we are united in our demands for justice in our negotiations."

The IAMAW had been complaining about a series of layoffs this year at Air Canada and a former division of the airline called Aveos Fleet Performance Inc.

In a statement Wednesday night, the country's largest airline confirmed the voting results, but said it's "business as usual" and "customers can continue to book Air Canada flights with confidence."

The carrier added that it's "confident that there is sufficient time for the parties to avoid a disruption."

Meanwhile, the Air Canada Pilots Association is opening the door to discussions with management about a proposed low-cost carrier (LCC).

"We are now watching the corporation for a signal that it is really committed to bargaining in good faith. If it is serious, the corporation will provide us with the details of its LCC that will allow us to perform our own due diligence and determine if there might be some arrangement that would work to the benefit of both parties," ACPA chairman Gary Tarves said in a memo to pilots.

Captain Tarves said he hopes the union's negotiating team "will be provided with the unvarnished truth on the corporation's plans for the future."

Previous labour contracts for the IAMAW and ACPA expired March 31, 2011.

Air Canada plans to create a low-cost airline with a foreign carrier as a minority partner and possibly Canadian investors.

The fledgling discount airline is to be based in Canada to ensure it has a Canadian licence, meaning that the foreign carrier will be restricted to owning a maximum of 25 per cent of the voting rights of the new joint venture.

Last week, federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt appointed two co-mediators in a bid to resolve the Air Canada dispute – retired judge Louise Otis and Jacques Lessard, acting director general of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

While ACPA said it is concerned that Ms. Otis will be on holidays and unavailable to help with mediated contract talks in March, Ottawa has noted the process could take six months. "It is our desire to conclude a tentative agreement within a shorter time frame," ACPA's negotiating committee said in a newsletter to pilots.

The 3,000-member union has a 60-day strike mandate that began Feb. 14, but labour leaders have emphasized that they are striving for a negotiated settlement and want to avoid being forced into issuing 72-hour notice of any walkout.

"We enter a mediation phase in our collective bargaining that is very fragile," said one of ACPA's regional representatives.

Ms. Otis will stay as a co-mediator after Ottawa confirmed that there will be no replacement, despite her scheduled absence in March.

Union leaders are mulling over a request from the co-mediators that that the two sides in the dispute agree to a no lockout-no strike period for 90 days.

ACPA said it doesn't want to give the corporation the ability to "continue leasing airplanes, establishing routes, acquiring operating certificates."

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