Globe and Mail Update
Published Tuesday, Mar. 06, 2012 11:39PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Mar. 07, 2012 1:37AM EST
Air Canada’s (AC.B-T0.97—-%) largest union has issued strike notice in a move that is bound to create anxiety as many travellers prepare for March Break.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers will be in a position to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. on Monday.
The 8,600-member IAMAW represents mechanics, baggage handlers, cargo agents, aircraft cleaners and electricians.
“We are the largest unionized work force at Air Canada. Without us, it’s all grounded,” the IAMAW said in a bulletin to its members.
Air Canada, however, played down the possibility of widespread cancellation to its flights.
“Should a settlement not be reached and the IAMAW commences job action, the airline will endeavour to minimize inconvenience to its customers,” the country’s largest carrier said late Tuesday night. “In the meantime, Air Canada continues to operate its normal schedule without disruption.”
On Feb. 10, IAMAW negotiators signed a four-year tentative pact, saying the deal provided “wage and premium increases, improved benefits and secures a defined benefit pension fund for the members.”
But 65.6 per cent of members who cast ballots in a ratification process voted against the proposed deal. As well, 78 per cent voted in favour a strike mandate.
Pension reform, wages, scheduling night shifts, mandatory overtime and the role of part-time staff are among the key issues, according to union members.
Air Canada’s payments toward defined benefit pensions are forecast to soar in 2014 because a cap on contributions previously negotiated in 2009 with the IAMAW and other unions will expire at the end of 2013.
Duncan Dee, an Air Canada executive vice-president, said the union’s strike notice will hit the nerves of thousands of customers who will be travelling in March on holidays.
“The lines of communication remain open and we are hopeful that there remains sufficient time to avoid a work disruption,” Mr. Dee said in a statement. “We regret the uncertainty for our customers and we thank them for their patience and understanding. This threatened job action follows the disappointing rejection of the unanimously recommended tentative agreement signed by the IAMAW bargaining committee.”
Air Canada warned that it is anticipating that the number of queries will surge at its call centres, so wait times will be lengthy.
“To avoid waiting, Air Canada strongly recommends customers consult its website, aircanada.com, which will continue to be updated with the latest information for customers,” said the Montreal-based airline.
On Friday, federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said Ottawa has been closely monitoring contract talks at Air Canada.
During a speech to the Economic Club of Canada, she noted that many passengers will be “coming and going from the March Break family holidays,” so any Air Canada walkout “would be most egregious.”
Last June, Air Canada’s sales and service agents staged a three-day strike, before agreeing to a contract. The Canadian Auto Workers union reached the deal hours after Ottawa debated back-to-work legislation.
In October, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents Air Canada flight attendants, cancelled a planned walkout after a move by Ms. Raitt effectively rendered any threatened strike illegal.
“I have absolutely no doubt that a work stoppage at Air Canada is contrary to the best interests of Canadians and Canadian businesses,” she said in her prepared speech last week in Toronto.
While Ms. Raitt didn’t specify whether she had back-to-work legislation or arbitration or some other measure in mind to avert any strike, she emphasized that “we will do what is right and what is necessary for Canada.”