BUSINESS
10/27/2011 02:26 EDT | Updated 12/27/2011 05:12 EST

Air Canada seeks to accelerate talks with pilots by seeking conciliation

MONTREAL - The union representing Air Canada pilots says the airline is attempting to intimidate its members by filing a notice of dispute with the federal government in order to kick-start labour negotiations.

"It's typical Air Canada bargaining tactics. It's meant to escalate things. Frankly it's meant to intimidate," Paul Strachan, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association, said in an interview Thursday.

The carrier's 2,900 pilots rejected a tentative agreement by a two-to-one margin in May.

Air Canada has been at odds with several of its main unions during recent negotiations and labour leaders have criticized the federal government of siding with the company.

The Canadian Auto Workers union reached a settlement in the summer for striking Air Canada customer service representatives under threat of being legislated back to work.

The flight attendants union reached two tentative settlements, both rejected by the membership, but they were prevented launching a strike when Labour Minister Lisa Raitt referred the matter to the Canada Industrial Relations Board.

The pilots association has been working over the past six months to prepare proposals that could be the basis for a new negotiated settlement.

Faced with internal political turmoil, it needed the time to replace its executive chairman, reorganize its bargaining team and survey members about what they want in a new deal.

Strachan said the airline accused CUPE-represented flight attendants of not knowing what its members wanted when it rejected a second tentative agreement. Yet it's rushing pilots to negotiate without having completed that internal review.

"We want to make sure we do it right this time. The last thing we want is another failed ratification vote," Strachan said.

Last week, the pilots proposed resuming talks in late November, but the Montreal-based carrier caught the ACPA off guard by filing the notice Wednesday.

The carrier said it acted to accelerate a second round of talks with pilots to achieve a negotiated settlement.

"The company is of the view that the involvement of a federally appointed conciliator would facilitate and expedite this second round of negotiation and bring it to a successful conclusion as soon as possible," said Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.

But Strachan said it's not helpful for either side to "bargain with the clock ticking in the background."

"Now we'll have to tighten it up and this is where balls get dropped when you start rushing things."

Air Canada's (TSX:AC.B) move starts the clock ticking to a potential strike, even though the federal government has threatened to intervene with other employee groups at the airline.

The conciliation process lasts up to 60 days unless extended. The parties have the right to strike or lockout 21 days after conciliation ends and must give 72 hours advance notice.

Among the key issues is Air Canada's desire to launch a low-cost carrier that it says will create jobs for 462 pilots, three times as many flight attendants and some airport and maintenance positions.

Strachan said he doesn't personally know the results of surveys that asked members what they expected in a new agreement. But he believes they would oppose lowering wages for new hires because of the skill level pilots have and the pay needed to attract calibre candidates.

He also doesn't believe that arbitration rulings for customer service representatives and flight attendants will create direct precedents for pilots.

Air Canada is about to enter into its second arbitration hearing on Friday, this time to resolve its dispute with flight attendants. Arbitrators are scheduled to rule by Nov. 7.

The airline this week abandoned a planned judicial review of an arbitrator's ruling creating a hybrid pension plan for customer service agents.

Talks are also slated to resume next week with machinists.

Meanwhile, the country's largest carrier announced an expansion of its Montreal customer service call centre that will create more than 150 new jobs.

Fifty positions have been filled and another 100 jobs will be added in the next few months. The expansion will boost the call centre's workforce to more than 250 people.

Air Canada operates other Canadian call centres in Saint John, N.B., Toronto and Winnipeg. Its U.S. call centre is in Tampa, Fla.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, Air Canada's shares closed up five cents, or 3.8 per cent, to $1.37 in Thursday trading.