The federal government is worried about the possibility of a strike at Air Canada as early as next week, and says a work stoppage would not be in the best interests of the Canadian public.
"The government is concerned that a strike is possible and is taking this situation very seriously," Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said Wednesday.
March Break travel plans for Canadians were thrown into disarray late Tuesday when the union that represents 8,600 mechanics, baggage handlers and cargo agents at Air Canada issued notice they will go on strike at 12:01 a.m. ET on March 12 unless a new contract is signed.
The union is trying to win back pay and concessions it gave up to help the airline restructure under bankruptcy protection in 2003 and 2004.
The union, which says it is the largest at Air Canada, said on the website of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 2323 that without its members the airline will be grounded.
"In my 40 years of collective bargaining, I have never seen the level of anger that I have seen in the membership at Air Canada," union vice-president Dave Ritchie said at a news conference in Toronto.
Ritchie said he hopes Raitt will let the two sides negotiate.
Duncan Dee, the Air Canada executive vice president and chief operating officer, said the airline will try to minimize inconvenience to its customers if there's a work stoppage.
In its financial report issued last month, Air Canada said it lost $60 million in the fourth quarter of 2011 and $249 million for the year.
Last summer, Ottawa passed legislation ordering locked-out Canada Post employees back to work. There is speculation that parliamentarians may take similar action to ensure Canadian business and recreational travellers are not affected by a strike at Canada's largest airline.
But in her statement Wednesday, Raitt stopped well short of that and urged both parties to continue bargaining and reach a new collective agreement as soon as possible.
The minister said she is closely monitoring the situation, but "the best solution is the one that the parties reach themselves. … A work stoppage is not in the best interests of Canadian public or Canadian businesses."
"We do encourage both parties to step back from the breach, to go back to the table and indeed find their way around a work stoppage and restore the confidence in the travelling public," Raitt added in question period.
For its part, the Opposition NDP said it hopes government stays out of the process as much as possible.
"Forcing them to come up with a deal at the negotiating table, I don't think is half-bad," NDP transport critic Yvon Godin said. "But to legislate a collective agreement or legislate something in the collective agreement … is bad.
"It has to be the two parties that get the contract."
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