POLITICS

Labour minister calls Air Canada and flight attendants to meeting next week

09/16/2011 02:15 EDT | Updated 11/16/2011 05:12 EST
MONTREAL - Air Canada's flight attendants have given their strike notice and could be off the job as early as Wednesday.

“Nobody benefits in a strike, but if we have to go on strike we certainly will,” said Jeff Taylor, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees' Air Canada Component, which represents the flight attendants.

“The members have told me loud and clear that they’re willing to walk the line and they want a fair deal,” he said in a phone interview.

The notification was delivered to a federal mediator Friday evening, and sets the clock ticking for a showdown between 6,000 flight attendants and Air Canada (TSX:AC.A).

There's still a possibility that the two sides can reach a deal that avoids a walkout or lockout at Canada's largest airline.

The flight attendants are in a legal strike position about 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

"Negotiations are ongoing and we still hope to come to an agreement with Air Canada," said Taylor.

Air Canada announced in response that it will allow customers to change their travel plans over the next six days free of charge, though a spokesman did stress the airline continues to operate on a normal schedule.

“There’ll be no strike action for a few days yet, so that gives us lots of time to sit down with the union to reach an agreement,” said Peter Fitzpatrick in a phone interview late Friday.

Earlier in the day, federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said in an email that she would call both sides for a meeting in Ottawa if no deal was reached by the weekend.

"I had a conference call with parties Wednesday evening. My message was that we want them to get a deal that can be ratified by membership. And if they can't get a deal then I asked them to find a process to get them to a deal. And if after the weekend they haven't progressed, I want to see them face to face Monday. "

Raitt's email added that she thinks "both parties understand the effect that a work stoppage has on the economy and will work hard to get a deal."

Taylor expressed hope that the government would stay out of the dispute unlike a strike by the airline's customer service staff earlier this year that ended before the government introduced back-to-work legislation.

“We’re hoping that the government is not going to intervene and they’re going to allow that process to take its course,” he said.

The Montreal-based company is Canada's largest air carrier, which operates across the country and has major continental and international routes.

The union's members overwhelmingly voted to give their union a strike mandate, less than a month after they rejected a previous tentative agreement reached by their negotiators.

The flight attendants, who have been without a contract since March 31, have been negotiating with the assistance of a federal mediator.

Industry analysts believe the government will move quickly to introduce back-to-work legislation if a strike occurs, especially since a strike by flight attendants would have a bigger impact on the airline than the three-day strike in June by customer service agents represented by the Canadian Auto Workers

The CAW union and Air Canada reached a negotiated settlement after Raitt announced legislation that would have sent the two sides to arbitration.

The public experienced little, if any disruption, during the CAW strike but the government said the strike threatened the economy.

The economic situation has since worsened, with suggestions that Canada could become the first G7 country to slip into recession after experiencing negative growth in the second quarter.

Air Canada has yet to disclose its contingency plans in the event of a strike, but has said it would operate a partial schedule with the help of its codeshare partners.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, Air Canada's shares hit a 52-week low on Friday but later gained five cents to close at $1.62.