OTTAWA - Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt on Monday introduced back-to-work legislation in the labour disputes between Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) and its pilots and machinists unions.
The bill follows a move by the minister last week to block a work stoppage at the airline by referring the disputes to the Canada Industrial Relations Board.
The proposed legislation would send the disputes with the Air Canada Pilots Association and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to binding arbitration.
Raitt said Monday that the government wants to protect the Canadian economy with the legislation.
"You cannot have this (labour turmoil) impact the economy," Raitt said in the foyer of the House of Commons prior to introducing the legislation.
"Economic recovery remains our government's top priority and grounded flights translate into lost opportunities for Canadian businesses and frustration for stranded travellers," Raitt said later in a statement.
"A work stoppage at Air Canada will take a toll on our fragile economy and that we simply can't afford."
Raitt said the government was "very disappointed" that agreements had not been reached and that some of the parties were considering work stoppages.
"Moving forward with legislation is always the last resort."
The collective agreement between Air Canada and ACPA representing approximately 3,000 pilots, as well as the collective agreement between Air Canada and the IAMAW representing approximately 8,200 technical, maintenance and operational support employees, both expired March 31, 2011.
Flights at Air Canada were set to stop this week after the airline said it would lock out its pilots. Meanwhile, Air Canada mechanics and baggage handlers had said they would go on strike in the midst of the key spring holiday season.
However, the referral to the CIRB prevented both the airline and the IAMAW from carrying out their threats.
The proposed legislation would prevent a strike or lockout even after the board makes its report as to how a work stoppage would affect the health and safety of Canadians.
Air Canada's employees have been trying to win back wages and other concessions they gave up to help the airline restructure under bankruptcy protection.
NDP Labour critic Yvon Godin said the back-to-work legislation was an attack on the workers.
"They are sending a strong message to business that they don't have to negotiate," Godin said.
News of the legislation came as Air Canada employees staged protest in Montreal and Toronto, where they accused the Conservative government of eroding workers' rights.
In Montreal, workers blew whistles and plastic horns Monday to protest the government's decision to prevent the machinists unions from going on strike.
Several carried placards marked, "Lisa Raitt, you're not right," in reference to the federal labour minister.
The pilots union and the machinists are the last two unions with which Air Canada needs to reach an agreement.
In September, the airline reached a deal with its flight attendants after a strike vote prompted Raitt to intervene.
And a walkout by the airline's customer service agents represented by the Canadian Auto Workers lasted just three days last year after the minister threatened back-to-work legislation.
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.
The pilots union has said it will put the airline's latest offer to a vote, but urged its members to reject the proposed agreement.
Meanwhile, the IAMAW has said its main issues are wages and a sizable pension deficit, which Air Canada has not dealt with despite the sale of $2 billion in assets.
Also on HuffPost