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Memo to Lisa Raitt: Stay out of Air Canada's business

Air Canada mechanics, baggage handlers and cargo agents protest in front of an Air Canada hangar at Pearson Toronto International Airport in Toronto on March 2, 2012.

MARK BLINCH/MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

Air Canada's biggest union has signalled its intention to strike and will be legally able to do so at 12.01 a.m. Monday. My advice to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers: Don't bother wasting your time printing the picket signs.

If federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt was prepared to step in to keep flight attendants on the job last October, what do you think the government's reaction will be to a strike of mechanics, baggage handlers, electricians and airplane washers. CUPE cancelled a planned walkout of flight attendants last October after intervention by Ms. Raitt made such a move effectively illegal. Air Canada would have been able to stay in the air with management staff. But when the mechanics et al go, the airline can't.

The repeated intervention in the labour affairs of Air Canada, which, the last time I checked, was still a private company, defies all but ballot-box logic. And there is no election on the horizon.

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"The government of Canada is committed to doing what it takes to protect the public interest and help unions and employers achieve constructive labour relations," Ms. Raitt declared.

It's no secret that the Conservative government is not sympathetic to unions, but it has yet to provide a coherent explanation for trampling on their legal rights at Air Canada, beyond concerns that travellers will face disruptions during the busy March break school holiday. Which is why the union chose the strike date in the first place.

In the old days, when Air Canada was a Crown corporation and dominated the national market, it was reasonable to treat it as something like an essential public utility. But that has not been the case for a long time. Several competitors would be only to happy to take advantage their rival's labour woes. Indeed, it's their lower cost structure that has precipitated increasing pressures on Air Canada to reduce its own sizeable labour bill.

Ottawa should let both sides sort out their own problems or provide a better rationale for treating one private-sector company as if it still held a near-monopoly in the Canadian market.

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