Labour Minister urges Air Canada, pilots' union to continue talks

Legal lockout or strike possible now that 'cooling off' period expired
By Nicole Mordant
||Last Updated: 02/15/2012

(Reuters) — Canadian Labour Minister Lisa Raitt urged Air Canada and its 3,000 pilots to keep working toward a contract agreement as a "cooling off" period in their dispute expired on Feb. 14, but neither side signaled it would break off talks.

Raitt, who stepped in last year to stop two other labour disputes at the country's largest airline, said in a statement the federal government was offering the parties a new mediator for up to six more months of negotiations.

Accepting the offer would not preclude a strike or lockout, ministerial spokeswoman Ashley Kelahear told Reuters.

"The minister believes the parties need more time," she said, noting that while neither side had yet taken up the mediation offer, they have not walked away from the table.

The Air Canada Pilots Association (ACPA) tentatively welcomed the minister's offer, which its executive council will discuss at a meeting in Vancouver on Feb. 21.

"It seems to me the minister appreciates the complexity of the issues that we are dealing with and that it will require a good deal of time to sort these things out," ACPA president Paul Strachan told Reuters.

Air Canada is now legally entitled to file 72 hours notice of its intention to impose a lockout but said on Feb. 13 it had no plans to do so. It said talks would extend beyond the end of the cooling-off period.

The union is waiting for the results from a vote by its members on whether to back a strike. If they support a work stoppage, the union could file 72-hour notice of its intention to strike. The results are expected on Feb. 21.

The ACPA's chief worry in the talks is that Air Canada plans to outsource "good Canadian jobs", Strachan said.

A leaked internal memo earlier this month showed that pilots are concerned Air Canada wants to set up a planned low-cost carrier offshore, where it would be able to tap cheaper labour than at home. The subsidiary is expected to be modeled on Qantas's low-cost offshoot, Jetstar.

The pilots' collective agreement expired March 31, 2011. They voted down a tentative agreement in May, partly because of concerns about the impact on jobs and wages of a low-cost carrier.

Air Canada faced a year of labour unrest in 2011. Call center and customer service staff staged a three-day walkout in June, and a strike by flight attendants was barely averted in October. The Conservative government, which argues the airline is important to the country's economy, stepped in to end both disputes.

Air Canada has now reached new contract agreements with all its major unions except for the pilots. In a sudden burst over the weekend, it reached three tentative deals in three days.

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