September 14, 2011 / 8:19 PM / in 6 years

Ottawa urging Air Canada, union to reach deal

<p>An Air Canada Boeing 777 taxis at Sydney airport after being given the all clear to resume its journey to Vancouver July 28, 2011. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne</p>

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government declined to say on Wednesday whether it was preparing legislation to head off another strike at Air Canada, the country’s biggest airline.

Instead, a spokeswoman for Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said that Ottawa, which was quick to pressure striking workers at Air Canada with back-to-work legislation in June, was focused on getting the two sides to reach a new contract agreement.

Some 6,800 flight attendants at Air Canada could walk off the job as early as next Wednesday, after they rejected a tentative contract agreement and voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike mandate.

“As we haven’t received any type of 72-hour strike notice from either party, the minister’s just focusing on encouraging both parties to resume bargaining and reach a new collective agreement,” Ashley Kelahear said.

A strike would severely disrupt the airline’s daily flights to more than a hundred destinations in Canada, the United States and overseas. The airline has said it would implement a partial schedule, including flights operated by its partner airlines, if there were a strike.

The attendants cannot strike until a labor conciliation period expires at midnight on Tuesday. By law, they also need to give the airline 72 hours notice of a labor action.

If the union plans to go on strike on Wednesday, it will have to serve a notice no later than early Sunday morning.

Kelahear would not speculate about what would happen if the union did announce a strike, but the Conservative government set a clear precedent in June with its swift back-to-work legislation to end a walkout at the airline by another union.

On the day the strike by nearly 4,000 customer service workers began, Raitt gave notice of her intention to introduce the legislation. Two days later, just after the bill was introduced, the airline and the Canadian Auto Workers union came to an agreement.

However, it can take several days to get such legislation through the House of Commons if the opposition wants to delay it, even though the Conservatives have a majority in the chamber.

The union-oriented New Democratic Party managed to delay by one week another bill to force striking Canada Post employees back to work in June, even with the House sitting round the clock.

A spokesman for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the flight attendants, said the key sticking points in negotiations included wages and work conditions, as well as the airline’s demand that new hires be moved to a defined contribution pension fund instead of a defined benefit plan.

Air Canada’s B shares were down 3 Canadian cents, or 1.9 percent, at C$1.57 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Wednesday afternoon.

Reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa and Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; editing by Rob Wilson

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