October 11, 2011 / 6:58 PM / in 6 years

Ottawa set to step in to block Air Canada strike

TORONTO (Reuters) - The government will step in to make sure a strike at Air Canada will not start on Thursday morning as scheduled, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said on Tuesday.

Raitt told CTV news she would refer the dispute between Air Canada and its flight attendants’ union to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board on Wednesday, a move that would suspend any strike action for an undefined period.

“What that does mean is that while the matter is before the CIRB there cannot be a work stoppage,” Raitt said in a CTV interview.

She said she did not know how long it would take the CIRB, an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal responsible for administering and interpreting parts of the Labour Code, to discharge its ruling.

The government had been running out of time to prevent a strike by 6,800 flight attendants at Canada’s biggest airline, with Parliament on a week-long break and a strike deadline of one minute past minute on Thursday approaching.

The Conservative government has twice drafted back-to-work legislation to halt other work stoppages at Air Canada earlier this year, although union and management agreed to tentative deals before either set of legislation passed.

One option in the latest dispute had been to bring Parliament back ahead of schedule, but parliamentary experts said it would almost certainly have taken until Saturday, or perhaps even Monday, for legislation to pass.

On Sunday, the flight attendants rejected a tentative labor contract reached between the airline and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), with the union then giving strike notice for Thursday.

The government has said a strike would be unacceptable, given the country’s “fragile economy.”

The flight attendants are willing to resume talks, the union said in a release on Tuesday.

“We are ready to return to the table and find a way to keep our members and the public flying with a fair collective agreement,” said Jeff Taylor, head of CUPE’s Air Canada component.

Air Canada, for its part, has made clear that it’s wary of further talks, given that union members have twice rejected contracts that union negotiators recommended.

“We have to question the legitimacy of the union’s representation and the entire collective bargaining process. CUPE leadership have failed to secure ratification of two separate tentative agreements,” a spokeswoman said.

Raitt said last month that a strike at Air Canada could strand as many as 65,000 passengers on its first day and analysts have said a work stoppage by the flight attendants would virtually ground the airline.

The airline’s main domestic competitor, WestJet Airlines Ltd, will add extra flights in the event of a strike, it said in a release on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s Pearson airport, Air Canada’s main travel hub, has faced other traffic delays due to job action by disgruntled security screening staff.

Garda World Security Corp, the employer of the screening staff, said it had suspended 74 officers and begun legal action against them for refusing to honor a CIRB injunction to stop their work slowdown.

The continued job action at Pearson brings into question how effective the government’s plan will be to halt an Air Canada strike by referring the dispute to the same board.

Shares of Air Canada closed down 2.1 percent at C$1.38 on the Toronto Stock Exchange. WestJet shares were up 14 Canadian cents at C$13.04.

($1=$1.03 Canadian)

Additional reporting by Louise Egan and Randall Palmer in Ottawa, and Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; editing by Janet Guttsman and Rob Wilson

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