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Air Canada flight attendants and their supporters gather outside Toronto Pearson Airport for a rally on Sept. 20. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Air Canada flight attendants and their supporters gather outside Toronto Pearson Airport for a rally on Sept. 20. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Federal government aims to block strike by Air Canada flight attendants Add to ...

The federal government is taking a new shot at blocking a strike by Air Canada flight attendants, before it resorts to introducing back-to-work legislation when MPs return to the House of Commons next week.

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said Ottawa will turn the matter over to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, a federal labour tribunal, marking the latest twist in the bitter labour conflict between Air Canada and its employees.

Whether the move is enough to halt a strike on Thursday remains to be seen. The CIRB already tried to halt a job action by 1,600 Canadian Airport Union Workers last week, but security screeners ignored the order, wreaking havoc on flight schedules.

As the threat of a strike looms, the airline is still holding out hope for a last-minute settlement. But conflicting interests are driving wedges between the company and employees – and even the union itself.

Over the past few months, the flight attendants have rejected not once, but twice, proposed contract offers that had been hammered out between Air Canada's management and the bargaining committee of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. That the rank and file would reject two different offers backed unanimously by union brass is a highly unusual outcome in labour relations in Canada, say experts. It raises the question of who – if anyone – Air Canada can sit down with to seriously negotiate a revised agreement, given the fact that the union representatives appear to have lost the confidence of their membership.

Air Canada has questioned the legitimacy of the bargaining committee and more than 2,300 flight attendants have signed a petition to oust their top three union leaders.

“This situation is unprecedented and we continue to evaluate options before deciding next steps,” Air Canada spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur said in an e-mail.

“Air Canada has now negotiated two separate tentative agreements with CUPE that were both endorsed unanimously by its members' elected representatives, yet subsequently rejected by its membership. These results suggest a fundamental disconnect between CUPE and its members that compromises the traditional bargaining process.”

A CUPE spokesman declined to comment.

Adding to the uncertainty is the readiness of the federal government to introduce back-to-work legislation to force the 6,800 flight attendants back on the job should they go ahead and strike.

George Smith, a fellow in the Queen's University School of Policy Studies and a labour relations expert, says the take-no-prisoners stance adopted by the rank and file appears to be the result of Ottawa's decision to get involved directly by threatening a back-to-work law.

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