Air Canada union members protest against government move to block strike
By JORDAN PRESS, Postmedia News October 14, 2011
Furious Air Canada flight attendants protested in front of the federal labour minister’s office in Milton, Ont., and in front of Pierre Trudeau International Airport in Montreal on Thursday, angry the federal government has blocked their ability to strike.
The airline filed a labour complaint against the union, representing 6,800 flight attendants, saying it bargained in bad faith in the hopes of triggering a lockout. The airline also asked to be compensated for any financial loss associated with the alleged breach of trust.
And on Wednesday night, police were called to the Ottawa home of Air Canada chief executive Duncan Dee after a “suspicious-looking male” slowly drove past, displaying what may have been a gun to the private security guard on duty. Dee’s family has been protected by a 24-hour security guard since Sunday, shortly after the union gave its strike notice.
The mood on Thursday was anything but relaxed one day after the federal government intervened in the labour dispute and blocked the workers’ ability to walk off the job.
“We have a right to strike,” said Stephanie Jaffres, a Montreal-based, 15-year veteran Air Canada flight attendant.
Labour lawyers say the government’s continued intervention in labour disputes has changed the landscape for collective bargaining – largely for the worse – and has started a legal process that will now force the courts to answer a question that has been left unanswered for years: do workers have the right to strike?
Four years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned its own jurisprudence and ruled the constitutional freedom to associate included the right to bargain, but didn’t say whether there was an equal right to strike.
Brian Langille, a labour law expert from the University of Toronto, said the government’s actions in recent labour disputes has invited the courts to answer that question.
“I think they’re going to answer it in the affirmative,” he said. “If you have the right to bargain, you have the right to strike.”
The postal workers on Wednesday filed their challenge to the back-to-work bill that ended their labour dispute in the Superior Court of Ontario.
The postal workers argue that the federal government shouldn’t have ordered them back to work and was in conflict of interest when it, as the sole shareholder of Canada Post, set the terms of mediation, including wages.
“Bargaining becomes meaningless without the right to strike,” said Paul Cavalluzzo, a constitutional lawyer representing the postal workers.
“If the court says that the charter protects the right to bargain, then it also must protect the right to strike.”
The case is expected to make its way to the Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court could indeed recognize some right to strike, but what form the right will take is really up to the court,” said David Doorey, a labour law expert from York University in Toronto.
In the meantime, experts say the government’s repeated use and threat of back-to-work legislation will colour the way workers and employers negotiate.
“This government has sent a clear message that it has little tolerance for the right to strike,” Doorey said. “We have to assume that’s going to influence how the parties go into collective bargaining.”
He said knowing the federal government would be quick to end or to prevent a work stoppage is a disincentive to both sides to give up anything in negotiations.
There’s also the possibility of wildcat strikes, work slowdowns and job action from frustrated employees feeling they have lost some of their rights. “It tells us the government can intervene where it has no business,” Jaffres said. “It builds frustration toward the government.”
The government has used the threat of back-to-work legislation four times since winning the May election: once to end the Canada Post lockout; and three times with Air Canada.
Opposition critics have said frequent federal involvement has ripple effects on other national industries, such as banks and transport, that are readying for negotiations.
One of those unions is the Air Canada Pilots Association. In May, the pilots rejected a tentative agreement with the airline and negotiations are set to resume sometime this fall. An exact date has not been announced.
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