VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Flight attendants at Air Canada have voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike, which could start as early as next Wednesday if they cannot agree on a new contract with the country’s biggest airline.
The airline said it is talks with the union and that its business would operate as usual. Air Canada will fall back to a partial schedule which includes codeshare flights operated by its partner airlines, it said in a statement.
A strike would seriously hobble Air Canada’s ability to fly to the more than 100 destinations it serves in Canada and internationally, analysts said.
However, any job action is likely to be short-lived as the Canadian government is expected to quickly legislate employees back to work.
Just short of 98 percent of the flight attendants who voted in a 10-day cross-country poll supported giving the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) a strike mandate, union officials said on Tuesday.
“No one wants a strike, but if we can’t reach a tentative agreement which addresses our members’ concerns, and soon, it could be our only choice,” Jeff Taylor, president of the Air Canada Component of CUPE, said in a statement.
The earliest the flight attendants could walk off the job legally is September 21, when the current conciliation process ends. By law, the union also has to give Air Canada 72 hours’ notice of a strike.
“There may be a way that they can run limited operations but they couldn’t run full operations,” said PI Financial analyst Chris Murray.
The vote comes after a majority of Air Canada’s 6,800 flight attendants rejected a tentative labor agreement reached by their negotiators last month.
The flight attendants’ last contract with the airline expired on March 31.
Voter turnout for the strike mandate ballot was high at 78 percent, according to a message posted by CUPE Local 4095 on Twitter.
Earlier in the day, when asked what strike preparations the company had made, Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah said the airline always has “contingency plans for a wide range of eventualities.”
CUPE said on Monday it has filed a grievance with the Canada Industrial Relations Board over a training program Air Canada has instituted for replacement workers in preparation for a possible strike.
If flight attendants do walk off the job, it would be the second strike to hit Air Canada this year. Unionized sales and ticketing agents struck for three days in June, spurring the federal government to introduce back-to-work legislation in Parliament.
The workers and the company then swiftly reached a contract deal before the legislation was passed.
Analysts have said that Ottawa’s willingness to quickly force employees back to work signals that no other Air Canada union will be able to strike for any length of time without the government stepping in.
Unions have criticized the Conservative government for interfering. Ottawa has defended its actions by saying that a strike at Canada’s biggest airline would damage the economy.
Air Canada has had a rocky six months of negotiations with its unions. In May its pilots rejected a tentative labor agreement and are expected to resume negotiations soon. The airline’s dispatchers last month also rejected a tentative pact.
Its mechanics are still sorting out a range of organizational issues before their contract talks start.
A key sticking point for the unions has been Air Canada’s insistence that new hires not be eligible for existing defined benefit pension packages and that they instead join a defined contribution scheme.
The carrier’s plan to start up a low-cost airline, which would create a second, lower-wage tier of staff, has also been met with some fierce resistance.
Air Canada’s stock closed 3 Canadian cents lower at C$1.61 on Tuesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange. News of the results of the strike mandate vote came after the market had closed.($1=$0.99 Canadian)
Additional reporting by Ankur Banerjee; Editing by Peter Galloway and Rob Wilson