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Air Canada flight attendants flash the Facebook wild card

An Air Canada jet takes off over the terminal at the Halifax airport. Flight attendants are poised to go on strike at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As Air Canada's flight attendants move closer to a strike, a wild card has emerged that is complicating attempts to reach a deal at the bargaining table. Its name: Facebook.

Thousands of workers have flocked to the popular social-media site in recent weeks, and many of them are using it as a forum to vent their anger – at the airline's management and also at the union leaders who represent them in the talks.

On a Facebook discussion page with nearly 3,600 participants, flight attendants are lashing out at a six-page letter written last week by Susan Welscheid, Air Canada's senior vice-president of customer service.

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Ms. Welscheid told union members that they need to buck up and accept the "facts of life" in the airline industry, especially irregular work schedules. One labelled Ms. Welscheid's letter "verbal diarrhea." (The page is restricted to flight attendants but was viewed by The Globe and Mail.)

The rank-and-file's militant tone is escalating as the country's largest airline and union negotiators try to reach an 11th-hour deal. Flight attendants are poised to go on strike at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, though federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt warned Monday that Ottawa is preparing to intervene with back-to-work legislation.

Jeff Taylor, president of CUPE's Air Canada component, acknowledged that he has been humbled by his members' outrage, and that it is making the negotiations harder. "It's a difficult task for us when they are networking the way that they are," Mr. Taylor said in an interview.

"At the end of the day, they are the voice, and we are their voice. We have to listen to the membership because that's what we're elected to do."

Last month, 88 per cent of unionized flight attendants members who cast ballots rejected a contract that had been recommended by their own seven-person negotiating team.

Instead of enjoying labour peace, Air Canada executives have been taken aback by the jarring development of flight attendants questioning the legitimacy of duly elected union officials. Some Facebook participants pondered replacing the CUPE bargaining team last month, but given the looming strike deadline, a campaign to oust the negotiators has been placed on hold in order to present a more united front during the labour dispute.

Besides flight attendants embracing Facebook, pilots have flocked to a private online forum that has attracted more than 1,760 members of the Air Canada Pilots Association. The forum spearheaded an online petition that forced several ACPA officials to resign this past spring, including the union's chairman, Captain Bruce White.

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About 52 per cent of Air Canada's 6,800 flight attendants have joined the Facebook discussion page, while 60 per cent of the carrier's 2,900 pilots are on the private website, which requires registration and a password.

In May, ACPA members rejected a tentative pact recommended by their negotiators. And earlier this month, a small group of dispatchers turned down a proposed contract – continuing the trend of voting against the wishes of union leaders.

Instead of employees grumbling in small groups on planes and at airports, they are banding together through the Internet.

"It does increase the expectations hugely with social media," Mr. Taylor said. "It's a real difficult thing for unions."

Company managers are worried that the collective bargaining process has broken down because three deals have fallen apart. Sources say Air Canada negotiators are perplexed about how to avoid a walkout on Wednesday.

The Montreal-based airline is concerned about the impact of social media and the implications for the Canada Labour Code. Air Canada sees aspects of the Labour Code as outdated because of restrictions that handcuff employers, preventing them from having direct discussions with staff about bargaining issues. Management wants to gain the ability to quickly respond to online criticism that spreads like wildfire.

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"We're in the age of social media. It's happening. We're not in control of how people are going to engage, gather and connect," said Sidneyeve Matrix, a Queen's University professor and social media trend watcher.

Prof. Matrix said it's unclear whether high participation levels at Air Canada on Facebook and the online forum might give employees the critical mass to create "productive disruption" and trigger an improved offer. "Depending on your perspective, it could go either way – whether this is going to result in a better negotiation and a better settlement and better workplace, or whether it's just taking the whole negotiation process right off the rails," she said.

Karl Moore, a professor at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management, said union negotiators and management both need to do a better job of communicating with employees. "Generally, when union officials agree that something is a good idea, the rank and file go along with it," he said.

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About the Author

Brent Jang is a business reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. He joined the Globe in 1995. His former positions include transportation reporter in Toronto, energy correspondent in Calgary and Western columnist for Report on Business. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway student newspaper. Mr. More

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