Talks set to resume to avert Air Canada flight attendant strike

Shadow of back-to-work bill hangs over last-minute negotiations
By Julie Gordon, Allison Martell and Nicole Mordan
|labour-reporter.com|Last Updated: 09/20/2011

(Reuters) - Labour talks between Air Canada and its unionized flight attendants will resume Sept. 20, 2011, leaving less than 12 hours for the two sides to reach a deal before the attendants are set to strike.

UPDATE: Air Canada flight attendants reach agreement with airline

Both sides have expressed hope that a last-minute deal was still within reach even as Air Canada, the country's biggest airline, planned to cancel some flights to free up planes for busy destinations.

The Canadian Union for Public Employees (CUPE), which represents Air Canada's 6,800 flight attendants, organized noisy rallies in seven Canadian cities on Sept. 20, 2011. Members, dressed in purple, blew whistles, waved union flags and handed out purple ribbons to the public.

Flight attendants will be in a legal position to strike starting at one minute past midnight Sept. 12, 2011.

"The Air Canada component of CUPE and the airlines management have been in near-constant talks for the past two days, and a fair deal for flight attendants and the airline is still within reach," Paul Moist, national president of CUPE, said in a statement.

A strike could severely disrupt flights at the world's eighth-biggest airline, which has close to 1,500 flights a day in Canada, the United States and internationally.

However, any job action is likely to be short-lived.

The federal government said it would legislate flight attendants back to work if last-ditch contract talks broke down, citing concerns that a strike at the country's largest airline would damage a still-fragile economy.

MINISTER PROMISES QUICK ACTION

"We have put notice on the order paper today that we have the intention to introduce legislation should there be a work stoppage," Labour Minister Lisa Raitt told reporters.

The earliest the government could introduce the legislation would be on Sept 21, 2011, Raitt said after a meeting in Ottawa with the two sides in the dispute.

She said the parties told her they were hopeful of reaching a settlement and averting a strike.

"They're close enough to get a deal, they should be able to do it," Raitt said. "They told me they can come to a deal."

In June, the Conservative government introduced back-to-work legislation to deal with striking Air Canada call-centre and check-in staff, citing concerns about the strike's impact on the economy. In the end, a deal was reached before the bill was passed.

Raitt said it could be several days before the new legislation is passed, in the event of a strike, because of the ability of the opposition to delay it.

The current dispute centres on pensions for new hires, wages and working conditions.

The airline says it would operate on a partial schedule if there is a strike, using code-share flights operated by partner airlines.

Flight attendants at Chorus Aviation's Jazz, which operates short-haul Air Canada Express-branded flights under contract, belong to a separate union.

WestJet Airlines Ltd., Air Canada's main domestic competitor, has said it would add extra flights if there is an Air Canada strike.

ARBITRATOR RULES ON PREVIOUS DISPUTE

In a possible clue to how one issue behind the flight attendants' strike could be resolved, an arbitrator ruled this weekend on a final holdover from June's strike, imposing a compromise where new staff will earn a pension that includes both defined-benefit and defined-contribution portions.

Air Canada flight attendants have rejected a tentative deal that would have sent the issue of pensions for new hires to arbitration.

Air Canada was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy two years ago, and it blamed heavy pension funding demands for its troubles. Its pension deficit is $2.1 billion.

The airline argues that it faces higher costs than its rivals, in part because its roots as a state-owned corporation mean it is subject to Canada's Official Languages Act and must be able to serve customers in either English or French.

Canada's Commissioner of Official Languages said earlier this week that Air Canada needs to improve its bilingual services and the airline pledged to develop a three-year plan to improve its compliance with the law.

The pro-union New Democratic Party said it had not decided whether to delay passage of any new back-to-work legislation as it did in June with a government bill to force Canada Post workers back on the job.

The NDP is the largest opposition party in the House of Commons. It does not have the votes to block legislation, but it can delay a bill's passage by several days.

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