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Air Canada Strike Seemingly Averted As Flight Attendants Barred From Walkout

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LISA RAITT
Minister of Labour Lisa Raitt responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, September 20, 2011. | CP

UPDATE IV: CUPE has confirmed that flight attendants will not be going on strike tonight. According to the union, the Canadian Industrial Relations Board has cited section 87 of Canada Labour Code in halting the planned strike. As a result, there will be no labour action until the board makes a decision on whether Air Canada should be considered an essential service. In the meantime, the union says it will remain open to negotiations with Air Canada.

UPDATE III: The Globe and Mail is reporting that the union representing Air Canada's flight attendants has called off a strike they had planned for midnight Thursday.

Earlier on Wednesday the CIRB confirmed that it was reviewing the government's request to consider Air Canada an essential service. The union is prevented from striking until the board's review is complete. "Our strike is suspended indefinitely. Therefore, the union advises you that you cannot strike,” said the union.

UPDATE II: The on-again, off-again Air Canada strike looked off again Wednesday afternoon after CBC reported the Canadian Industrial Relations Board blocked flight attendants from striking.

The CIRB reportedly said it had received the federal government's request for a review of whether the airline is an essential service.

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt had announced on Tuesday the government's intention to block the strike by asking for a CIRB review, which automatically blocks any strike action.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the flight attendants, reacted angrily to the move.

"Minister Raitt's attempt to use the Canadian Industrial Relations Board to circumvent the rights of our members is outrageous," union leader Paul Moist said in a statement. "Her rationale for this is disingenuous and the use of the Canada Labour Code and the CIRB in this way is indefensible. These disgraceful tactics can be seen as nothing else but an outright attack on the rights of every worker in Canada."

UPDATE: Labour Minister Lisa Raitt's vow to take the Air Canada labour dispute to a labour board -- suspending the right of flight attendants to walk off the job -- may not be enough to stop a strike.

Air Canada flight attendants say they're ready to strike at midnight.

Raitt said Tuesday she is referring the dispute to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board, a move critics described as exploiting a loophole to stop a legal strike.

"Flight attendants represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), are preparing to walk off the job at 12:01 am, October 13, despite media statements by the Minister of Labour and the airline hinting at blocking their right to strike," the union said in a press release Wednesday. "The union is in a legal strike position, and has to date received no order to the contrary."

CUPE says it "remains available to resume negotiations with Air Canada, but is preparing for a strike set to begin after midnight."

Yet that's not the story that Air Canada is telling customers. In an announcement on its website, the country's largest carrier is asserting that the minister's move has "effectively [cancelled] the strike deadline."

"It will remain business as usual at Air Canada and all flights will continue to operate as scheduled," the airline said. "We thank you for your patience and loyalty during this time."

Federal labour minister Lisa Raitt promised on Tuesday to block an impending Air Canada strike -- the latest iteration of an oft-repeated pledge to do what it takes to keep air traffic flowing freely. But while it may be intended to encourage the feuding sides to reach a rapid settlement, critics maintain that the spectre of government intervention is doing precisely the opposite.

According to labour leaders and industrial relations experts, Raitt’s commitment to swift action, including back-to-work legislation, is having unanticipated consequences on the collective bargaining process, allowing the union membership to play hardball without fear of a protracted walk out.

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As George Smith, a fellow in the Queen’s University School of Public Policy and longtime collective bargaining negotiator, explains, the possibility of a strike -- and the threat of lost profits and wages -- is a significant motivator in contract talks.

In this case, however, he says the promise of fairly immediate government-mandated arbitration has inserted “a no-cost option that wasn’t previously available in the Canadian federal jurisdiction.”

“We used to have an expression when I was bargaining. That was: ‘Nothing focuses the attention like a hanging in the morning,’” he told The Huffington Post. “The problem is there’s no midnight anymore. You’ve got nothing to lose by voting [an agreement] down, and taking your chances with an arbitrator.”

The flight attendants are represented by the Air Canada Component of CUPE, which has stopped taking media calls in advance of the Thursday strike deadline.

But Canadian Autoworkers Union President Ken Lewenza, whose organization recently negotiated an agreement for another division of Air Canada workers, says he has “no doubt” that Ottawa’s stance played a role in the flight attendants’ rejection of the second tentative agreement on Sunday.

“When the minister of labour comes out and says to workers, ‘Well, you know what, you have the right to strike, but I have the right to order you back to work,’ that is sending out a message that there is going to be minimum pain to those that chose to vote down the collective agreement,” says Lewenza.

The CAW reached a tentative deal for Air Canada’s sales and service workers in June. Securing that agreement was by no means a walk in the park, either: it was achieved just minutes after the Harper government tabled back-to-work legislation, and two days after some 3,800 of the company’s employees took to the picket lines.

According to Smith, who used to be the senior director of employee relations at Air Canada, the decision reached in arbitration in that instance favoured the union -- which could be adding to the apparent willingness of flight attendants to go down a similar route.

Lewenza, however, describes it as a “partial victory,” adding that because the parties moved to arbitration on their own terms, the union had a hand in setting the ground rules, which may not be the case in government-mandated arbitration.

Speaking to media on Tuesday afternoon, Raitt said she will prevent some 6,800 flight attendants from walking off the job on Thursday by referring the dispute to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board, which would block the action while the health and safety implications are considered.

But observers warn that the speed with which the Harper administration has been intervening in labour disputes -- underscored this summer with the controversial bill that swiftly ended a strike at Canada Post -- could carry unforeseen outcomes.

In a paper he co-authored for the C.D. Howe Institute last year, McGill management professor Robert Hebdon found that when it comes to collective bargaining, back-to-work legislation makes it less likely that the parties will be able to reach an agreement through free negotiations in subsequent talks.

“The research overwhelmingly shows that if governments interfere, it changes the expectations of the parties,” he told HuffPost. “They begin to expect intervention, and it just destroys the bargaining process in the future.”

This seems to have been the case with the recent Canada Post strike.

"I saw what was going on when the federal government, on June 14, decided ... to impose back-to-work legislation. The employers decided at that time not to negotiate, to just sit on the collective agreement, we think for the back-to-work legislation," Canadian Unions of Postal Workers National President Denis Lemelin said at a press conference Wednesday. "If that’s [proven], then there’s collusion between the government and Canada Post on this issue."

CUPW announced that it will challenge Ottawa's use of back-to-work legislation under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

For the flight attendants, the belief that Ottawa will step in may also be contributing to increasingly strained union relations. Following the rejection of a latest tentative agreement, The Globe and Mail reported that some 2,200 flight attendants had signed a petition to remove their union leaders.

“I think that the minister, if she looked at this really closely, she’d find that her interventions have probably contributed to the disconnect that has occurred between the union and the members,” says Hebdon. “Governments need to learn the lesson to stay out of these things.”

Meanwhile, in their latest press release, union officials conveyed hope that an eleventh-hour agreement could still be reached.

“We are ready to respond quickly to the employer,” Jeff Taylor, president of the Air Canada Component of CUPE, said on Tuesday. “While no formal talks have taken place yet, we are ready to return to the table and find a way to keep our members and the public flying with a fair collective agreement.”

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