An Air Canada flight attendant prepares to de-plane at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport in Montreal, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011. (Ryan Remiorz / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Press
Date: Thursday Oct. 20, 2011 9:12 PM ET
MONTREAL — Air Canada and the union representing its flight attendants have agreed to binding arbitration to settle their contract dispute.
The two sides reached the agreement on Thursday at a meeting involving representatives with the Canada Industrial Relations Board, said news releases from the airline and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the 6,800 flight attendants.
Hearings are to begin Oct. 28 and a binding arbitration award is to be made by Nov. 7. The labour board will appoint an arbitrator if the two sides can’t agree on one.
Both parties also agreed to withdraw unfair labour practice complaints filed by Air Canada on Oct. 12 and by CUPE on Sept 19.
Paul Moist, CUPE’s national president, said the federal government’s threat of back to work legislation and asking the labour board to take away the workers’ right to strike have made it too difficult to reach an agreement through negotiation.
“In this context arbitration is the best option,” Moist said in a statement.
Duncan Dee, Air Canada’s Chief Operating Officer, expressed hope the two sides could finally move forward.
“Air Canada is pleased to have a process in place whereby we can avoid any disruption of service and eliminate uncertainty for our customers,” Dee said in a statement.
Meantime CUPE is taking its fight to preserve free collective bargaining to Parliament Hill.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees has invited other unions to join a protest that begins at noon on Friday.
The rally follows a string of protests that have taken place across the country, including in front of the prime minister’s Calgary office and in front of Labour Minister Lisa Raitt’s constituency office north of Toronto.
Observers say Parliament Hill provides an important visual backdrop as the union tries to mobilize opposition MPs and court public opinion.
But they doubt it will have any impact on changing the positions of the federal government or the country’s largest airline.
“This rally is about bringing together the labour movement on a common cause and raising public awareness of an important issue,” said David Doorey, associate professor of labour and employment law at York University’s School of Human Resource Management.
Doorey said the Harper government has taken a marked departure from Ottawa’s traditional neutral role in Canadian industrial relations.
“These actions are a wake-up call to lumbering labour movement. This rally is a calling to arms.”
Asked how it felt about the rally, Raitt spokeswoman Ashley Kelahear said the government encourages Canadians “to express their opinions in a lawful and peaceful matter.”
With just 16 per cent of private sector employees unionized, CUPE faces an uphill battle galvanizing public support, especially when a strike risks disrupting air travel, adds Ian Lee of Carleton University.
“I don’t think the public will support CUPE on this,” he said in a interview.
He said union leaders have to be seen fighting against the government even if it’s a lost cause.
Ultimately, he said they fear the government involvement will become a precedent or that the Tories have plans to change the Canada Labour Code.
“What CUPE is trying to do is mobilize their own workers but also other unions, saying it may be us this time but it may be you next time.”
Canadian unions are understandably nervous, added Karl Moore of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.
“I don’t think it will change this particular circumstance, it’s more in general to warn the government don’t do this again.”
The flight attendants voted to strike but were barred from walking off the job after Raitt referred the case to the quasi-judicial labour board.
Wages, working conditions and pension changes are issues, along with Air Canada’s plans to launch a discount carrier.
The workers rejected two tentative agreements that the union negotiated this year. They’ve complained loudly that the airline has forced them to swallow too many concessions over the years.
Air Canada says it will be business as usual as long as the matter is before the board