Arbitration doesn’t fly with unions

Government intervention rapped; Air Canada dispute with flight attendants will end with arbiter’s binding contract

By BRADLEY BOUZANE, Postmedia News October 22, 2011

Hundreds of union members and supporters of Air Canada’s flight attendants marched on Parliament Hill Friday to decry the federal government’s influence on labour negotiations as the Air Canada contract dispute gets set to head to binding arbitration.

The steps in front of the Peace Tower were flooded by a noisy sea of purple-clad members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and their supporters. The union’s national president said that while arbitration is not the ideal way to reach a new agreement, the union is committed to making it work.

“We would have preferred our free collective bargaining rights to be left intact and that the expression of support from flight attendants to withdraw their labour would be respected, but that’s not the case in 2011, so far, in Canada,” Paul Moist told reporters.

“In the circumstances we were in, (going to arbitration) was the responsible decision. (Flight attendants) have been put in a terrible spot by the government of Canada. In these circumstances, we agreed to the process and we’ll try to make it work for flight attendants.”

As the rally continued on Parliament Hill, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt told reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons that the move to binding arbitration signals progress and testifies to the strength of the labour process.

“CUPE is having a peaceful demonstration outside to bring to the attention of the Canadian public that they didn’t like the way in which the process unfolded this time,” Raitt said.

“And … the end of the day … they concluded their own deal, so the process did work. It took more time and it did take some help and facilitation by us in putting them at the right table, but it did happen and they have a process and it shows that the system can and does work.”

The airline and the union representing its 6,800 flight attendants have two weeks to come to an agreement and negotiate a deal through the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB).

Each side will submit outstanding issues to an arbiter on Oct. 28, who will issue a decision no later than Nov. 7. There can be neither a strike nor a lockout.

Both the airline and the union came to the decision at a meeting with the CIRB Thursday in Ottawa.

Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel was among the first speakers to address Friday’s crowd, saying the government must change its ways in dealing with labour disputes.

Several other opposition MPs were also in attendance.

“I hope that they will learn – this government … that doesn’t listen to labour and doesn’t listen to workers – that they stop interfering with negotiations,” Turmel said.

Air Canada did not offer comment on Friday’s rally.

Airline analyst Robert Kokonis said the method of resolving the current labour dispute could have implications for other Air Canada workers – including pilots, machinists and flight planners – who also are due for new contracts in the near future.

Kokonis said the other groups realize the government is willing to step into the process to ensure air service is not disrupted.

In arbitration, however, the flight attendants may end up getting shortchanged in contrast to any negotiated settlement, he said, but the process could help solve numerous issues both sides have.

“There could be a real possibility that as a result of binding arbitration that (flight attendants) could end up with a little bit less than what they were hoping for,” said Kokonis, the president of Air-Trav Inc., an independent airline consulting company. “But the key aspect of binding arbitration is really on the outstanding issues they have to submit to the arbitrator.”

The CUPE members – many of them wearing bright purple wigs and hats, and carrying balloons and other props – were joined Friday by other labour groups, including the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Protesters from the Occupy Ottawa movement also joined CUPE members on the steps of Parliament.

One Toronto-based flight attendant said that while the course the contract dispute has taken is disappointing, any deal that surfaces from arbitration will be respected and workers won’t alter their conduct as a result.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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