(Reuters) - Air Canada's flight attendants canceled their planned strike on Wednesday just hours before it was due to start after the federal government asked a labour board to step into the dispute.
Employees must stay on the job while the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) looks into the dispute between Air Canada, the country's largest airline, and the union that represents its 6,800 flight attendants. One issue is whether the airline is an essential service that must keep operating to ensure the health and safety of the population.
"When the minister makes a referral under that section (of the labour code) related to essential services, that actually suspends the right to a strike or a lockout," CIRB executive director Ginette Brazeau told Reuters.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) had been planning to strike at one minute past midnight after flight attendants, angry at the airline's work rules and plans to set up a discount branch, rejected a labour contract.
It was the second time in three weeks that the two sides had narrowly averted a strike.
The Canadian government asked the CIRB, an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal that administers and interprets parts of the Labour Code, to look into the dispute and perhaps force the two sides to settle.
"As a negotiated agreement is unlikely in the near future and the collective bargaining process has broken down, the Minister of Labour has asked the CIRB to consider either imposing an agreement upon the parties or sending Air Canada and CUPE to binding arbitration," the office of Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said in a statement.
CUPE said it was reviewing its next steps.
"During all previous discussions and negotiations between Air Canada and its flight attendants, at no time did the employer make a formal request for the maintenance of 'essential services' in the event of a strike," it said.
The government, Air Canada and its flight attendants' union had sent out conflicting signals throughout the day on Wednesday on whether there would be a strike, prompting mass confusion from travelers even as Air Canada insisted its flight schedule would operate as normal.
Brazeau said the parties were notified of the referral to the CIRB at about 2 p.m..
The government has repeatedly said that Canada's fragile economy cannot afford a strike at Air Canada, which flies to more than 150 destinations in Canada and abroad.
Ottawa drafted back-to-work legislation for two previous labour disputes at the airline, but would have found it hard to pass such legislation quickly on this occasion, given that Parliament is not sitting this week.
Labour relations experts said the government's decision to use the CIRB to try to block a strike was unprecedented.
"The CIRB has never been used to suspend a strike," said George Smith, a research fellow in the school of policy studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
"There has never been a question of an airline strike having something to do with the health and safety of Canadians," he said.
Another analyst suggested the government was overstepping its mark in wanting to shut down a strike at Air Canada, a company it regards as an important driver of the economy.
"What I'm watching is a government that appears to be addicted to back-to-work legislation," said Paul Cavalluzzo, a senior partner and labour lawyer at Toronto firm of Cavalluzzo Hayes Shilton McIntyre & Cornish.
"They are interfering in the collective bargaining process and when you have this kind of government interference, you're going to skewer the whole process so that it won't be effective any more," he said.
The flight attendants have twice rejected deals hammered out between Air Canada and their union representatives.