Published On Mon Mar 05 2012
Air Canada management is meeting with top union officials in hopes of kickstarting talks before a mid-March strike date.
Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Vanessa Lu Business Reporter
Top leaders for the machinists’ union are meeting with Air Canada management on Monday, in hopes of jump-starting talks.
This is the first face-to-face meeting since the union’s membership voted 65.6 per cent to turn down a four-year tentative agreement that had been recommended for acceptance by the bargaining team.
The members also voted 78 per cent to give their union a strike mandate at that time.
The union said Chuck Atkinson and Dave Ritchie, president and vice-president of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, are scheduled to meet with Kevin Howlett, Air Canada’s senior vice-president of employee relations.
“We want to sit down. We want to resume negotiations,” said Bill Trbovich, a union spokesman. “I don’t think the company wants a strike any more than we do.”
Under the Canada Labour Code process, the union would be in a legal strike position after March 15, but it would need to serve72 hours’ notice. That would fall right smack in the middle of the March Break, a peak travel time in Ontario.
The airline’s 3,000 pilots are also in a legal strike position, though its union has said it has no plans for job action at this time. Its strike mandate expires in mid-April.
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick confirmed the company is meeting with the IAM union, and “looking for a way forward to achieve a settlement.”
He added: “For that reason, it is business as usual and customers can book with confidence.”
The machinists’ union represents 8,600 baggage handlers, ground crews and maintenance engineers – Air Canada’s largest union.
This latest rejection of the tentative contract mirrors a pattern at Air Canada where a deal is reached, and union leaders recommend acceptance, then rank-and-file members reject it. That happened once with the pilots and twice with the flight attendants.
It comes in part because Air Canada’s employees made significant concessions from wages, scheduling and pensions during the lean years when the airline was on the brink of bankruptcy, and were hoping to make in-roads in this round of bargaining.
For the IAM members, the top issues are scheduling and pensions, said Trbovich, noting the company’s management team is still earning bonuses.
In a final report dated Feb. 22, Louise Otis as conciliation commissioner writes, “this tentative collective agreement was the result of a fair and productive negotiation process by competent negotiators.
“Tense and arduous by all means, the negotiation was nonetheless undertaken rationally and professionally by both parties,” Otis said.
She called the tentative agreement reasonable and fair, and said the negotiation process, which was carried out diligently and competently, has been exhausted, and she does not recommend talks be resumed or a mediator appointed.
Last month, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt also appointed Otis along with Jacques Lessard, acting director-general of the federal mediation service, to mediate a long-standing dispute between the pilots and Air Canada.
The pilots are worried that a company’s plan to start a discount airline would have an adverse effect on wages and working conditions.
But Otis quit late last month, citing work conflicts that would delay the process, after pilots expressed concerns over delays. The pilots have asked that another mediator be appointed, but Raitt has not indicated another one is needed.
The two unions are acutely aware that Raitt has intervened in previous Air Canada disputes to ensure that flights are not affected, saying the country’s fragile economic recovery is at stake.
Last fall, when the flight attendants, who are represented by CUPE, were about to walk off the job, Raitt blocked a strike, sending the matter to the Canada Industrial Relations Board for consideration. The parties later agreed to binding arbitration, and the flight attendants were given the contract they had rejected.