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(Reuters) - Air Canada's refusal to extend a period of conciliated labor talks with its pilots' union raises the chance of a strike or lock-out at the country's biggest airline by as early as February.
The 3,000-strong Air Canada Pilots Association (ACPA) said on Tuesday the carrier had declined to extend labor contract negotiations that had been taking place under a conciliator appointed by the federal government.
Negotiations now enter a 21-day cooling off period, during which talks between the two sides can continue, but under greater pressure, ACPA President Paul Strachan said on Wednesday.
"By starting this clock in the background it puts an unnecessary time constraint upon talks," Strachan said in an interview.
During this period, the pilots' union can seek a strike mandate from its members. After the 21 days run out, pilots, if they have the members' go-ahead, can walk off the job after giving the airline 72 hours notice. Air Canada can also lock out workers if they give the same notice.
Strachan said the union does not want to strike. "Our folks have more at stake than just about anybody. Executive officers come and go but the pilots are here for the long haul," he told Reuters.
If pilots should go on strike, it is likely to be shortlived as the Canadian government has shown it will not tolerate labor disruption at Air Canada, which it sees as a threat to the economy. Ottawa stepped in twice last year to halt labor disruptions at the airline.
The pilots have been without a contract since March 31, 2011. They rejected a tentative settlement in May 2011.
"We remain committed to concluding an agreement without disruption and are awaiting ACPA's response to our proposal that was tabled January 16th," an Air Canada spokeswoman said.
Reporting By Nicole Mordant; editing by Rob Wilson