03/08/2012 02:30 EST | Updated 03/08/2012 04:56 EST

Air Canada Strike: Lisa Raitt Prevents Work Stoppage, Sends Dispute To Industrial Relations Board


OTTAWA - Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt stepped in Thursday to prevent a work stoppage at Air Canada next week that would have thrown the travel plans for thousands of families into chaos at the beginning of a holiday week.

Raitt sent the dispute between the airline and two of its unions — the pilots and ground crew — to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board to see how a work stoppage would affect the health and safety of Canadians.

"The Canadian Labour Code is very clear that while the CIRB is considering the matter of what level of service an air carrier has to provide in the case of health and safety matters that they cannot affect a work stoppage," the minister said.

It was the same manoeuvre that Raitt used when it appeared as if Air Canada's flight attendants would go on strike, but the CIRB never made a decision on that matter.

"It is still a valid question to me, especially when it comes to passengers and cargo and that's exactly why we're going to be sending it over to the CIRB," Raitt said Thursday.

Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) had threatened earlier Thursday to lock its pilots out on Monday after they rejected the airline's latest contract offer, while the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents ground crew and mechanics, had set a strike deadline for Monday.

Air Canada's employees have been trying to win back pay and concessions they gave up to help the airline restructure under bankruptcy protection in 2003 and 2004.

The Air Canada Pilots Association has said it has been flying under an expired 2009 agreement that froze their pay for more than two years and gave the airline hundreds of millions of dollars in relief from its pension funding obligations.

Meanwhile, the machinists union has said the main issues are wages and a sizable pension deficit, which Air Canada has not dealt with, despite the sale of $2 billion in assets.

In September, the airline reached a deal with its flight attendants after a strike vote prompted Raitt to intervene.

A walkout by the airline's customer service agents represented by the Canadian Auto Workers last year ended after just three days after the minister threatened back-to-work legislation.

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