Labour strife ahead in Air Canada, pilot talks

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Toronto Star
Vanessa Lu
Business Reporter

Air Canada’s pilots are accusing the airline of unnecessarily turning up the pressure on contract talks, by refusing to extend the official conciliation period.

That move essentially starts a countdown toward a strike or lockout during this 21-day period, known as a cooling-off period — making it legal for a strike or lockout around Valentine’s Day.

Paul Strachan, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association, says his 3,000 pilots won’t be launching any job action, noting a strike vote hasn’t even been taken and none is scheduled.

“They’re manufacturing a time compression here that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “Clearly, they are not that interested in bargaining at the table. They’re hoping the government will intervene.”

Under the Canada Labour Code, federal conciliation expires after 60 days, and both sides agreed to two one-week extensions, but Strachan said Air Canada declined to another extension on Monday.

He said the union only received the company’s proposal six days ago and needs more time to respond.

“Now is where the real of meat of bargaining would normally occur,” Strachan said. “You have two opening positions from the parties, and now you bargain to a solution. I don’t understand why Air Canada is rushing it.”

Air Canada disputed the union’s accusation that the airline is abandoning efforts to reach a new contract.

“Air Canada remains at the table awaiting a response to its most recent offer,” the airline said in a news release.

“In view of the time elapsed since the start of negotiations towards a new collective agreement, the company is of the view that the 21-day mediation period provides ample time to the parties to reach agreement.”

These are the second round of talks after pilots overwhelmingly rejected a tentative agreement reached last March, before the contract expired.

Rank-and-file members were so upset by the deal that included a proposal for a discount airline and two-tier pension plans that they booted out several top executives with the Air Canada Pilots Association.

But now nearly a year later, the landscape has changed dramatically.

The airline appears emboldened thanks to a federal government that has shown is prepared to intervene when needed to ensure flights are not grounded by labour unrest.

Customer service agents ended a brief three-day strike in June as Labour Minister Lisa Raitt was preparing to bring in back-to-work legislation.

She also prevented flight attendants from walking off the job by referring the labour dispute to the Canada Industrial Relations Board.

In the end, the two sides agreed to arbitration to settle the contract, and flight attendants got the exact contract that they had voted down.

Raitt spokeswoman Ashley Kelahear said the minister is closely monitoring this case, and that she expects both parties to bargain in good faith.

“It is essential that negotiations continue and that the parties overcome this current impasse and move forward towards a negotiated resolution of this matter,” Kelahear said in an email, adding the federal conciliator is in contact with both parties and available to help.

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