March 12, 2012 / 2:48 PM / in 6 years

Ottawa unveils Air Canada back-to-work bill

OTTAWA/VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The Canadian government brought in legislation on Monday to block a strike or lockout at Air Canada in its latest move in a week to avert a work stoppage at Canada’s biggest airline.

Canada's Labour Minister Lisa Raitt (2nd R) speaks to journalists at the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 12, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

The back-to-work bill would take two to three days to pass, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt told CTV television, a speedy passage after the government limited debate on the legislation. That will ensure it is in place before Parliament breaks for a week’s vacation next week.

Last week the government prevented a simultaneous strike and lockout at Air Canada by asking the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to rule whether the industrial action would put public health and safety at risk.

Both the strike and the lockout would have started on Monday, but were delayed at least temporarily while the CIRB reviewed the issue.

Ottawa’s decision to also push ahead with back-to-work legislation this week means the airline will keep flying regardless of what the CIRB decides.

Raitt, who brought in legislation twice last year to halt strikes at Air Canada and at Canada Post, said Canada’s economic recovery would be harmed by a work stoppage at the airline.

She said the government had a duty to protect the interests of Canadians, at least a million of whom will travel on the airline this week during the March school break, and to look out for employees at businesses hit by an Air Canada shutdown.

“We cannot afford this work stoppage ... The risks are too great,” Raitt said in the House of Commons.

The minister also indicated that the government was concerned that a work stoppage could push Air Canada back into bankruptcy. The airline, which flies to more than 180 destinations, emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2004.

“That could be the tipping point for an airline already operating on the very edge of profitability,” she said, noting that Air Canada had already indicated that labor uncertainty meant it had canceled flights “on a daily basis” and cargo shipments were “suppressed”.

Yves Godin, labor critic for the opposition New Democratic Party, said Ottawa was again trampling on workers’ rights and sending a message to employers that the government will play the role of “tough guy” for them in negotiations.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents about 8,600 Air Canada mechanics and baggage handlers, will meet with the CIRB on Wednesday, a union spokesman said.

The airline’s 3,000 pilots, represented by the Air Canada Pilots Association, will have their turn on Thursday, union President Paul Strachan said.

The machinists union had issued a strike notice to Air Canada after its members rejected a contract agreement. The airline said it would lock out its pilots after the two sides failed to agree on a contract after more than a year of talks.

Air Canada shares ended down 3 percent at 92 Canadian cents on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The airline said its flights and services were “business as usual” on Monday.

Editing by Peter Galloway, Janet Guttsman and Rob Wilson

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