Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt, came under fire Thursday after she again stepped in to prevent a labour disruption at Air Canada over the busy March Break by referring its dispute with the unions representing its pilots and machinists to the Canada Industrial Relations Board.
“Given our fragile economy, we’ve said before, a work stoppage is unacceptable,” she told reporters in Ottawa.
Ms. Raitt said she would ask the CIRB to determine whether an airline like Air Canada could be considered an essential service. She has used similar means in the past to head off a work stoppage at the Port of Montreal, at Marine Atlantic and at Air Canada last October to avoid a strike by flight attendants.
“The Canadian labour code is very clear that while the CIRB is considering the matter of what level of services an air carrier may have to provide in the case of health and safety matters, they cannot affect a work stoppage. So it applies to both a lockout and a strike,” Ms. Raitt said.
The move came after Air Canada said it was prepared to lock out its pilots at 12:01 a.m. Monday after the Air Canada Pilots Association refused to accept management’s final offer by a deadline the airline had set for noon Thursday.
That decision came one day after the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents 8,600 ground crew and mechanics at the airline, said it was prepared to walk off the job Monday if a labour agreement couldn’t be reached by then.
“We need to bring closure to the ongoing climate of labour uncertainty at Air Canada which is affecting our customers, destabilizing the company and our operations, and damaging the Air Canada brand,” Duncan Dee, Air Canada chief operating officer, said in a statement about the decision to lock out its pilots.
The company said it would be business as usual at the airline while the CIRB considers the matter.
Capt. Paul Strachan, ACPA spokesman, said he was frustrated by the government’s decision to intervene.
“Air Canada needs to behave like the private sector corporation that it is and stop running to the government every time it has a problem,” he said during a press conference Thursday.
Yvon Godin, NDP labour critic, condemned Ms. Raitt’s actions, saying it undermined the unions’ right to strike and to negotiate the terms of their own labour agreements.
Liberal Leader, Bob Rae, said the government has made a “farce” out of collective bargaining in Canada with its constant interference.
“The problem is we haven’t had an even hand in terms of encouraging people to get to the bargaining table early and doing everything they can to get to an agreement,” Mr. Rae said.
George Smith, an industrial relations professor at Queen’s University said he thought both Air Canada and IAMAW were being opportunistic by threatening a strike during the busy March Break. Prof. Smith, a former chief negotiator for Air Canada, said there is little risk for either side because Ms. Raitt has shown in the past that she will prevent a work stoppage, meaning the company will not suffer much economically and the union might be able to get a better deal through arbitration.
In June, she tabled back-to-work to put an end to a three-day strike at Air Canada by its sales and service agents. The parties ultimately decided to put their outstanding pension issues out for arbitration. The dispute last October with its flight attendants was also put out for arbitration after Ms. Raitt referred the matter to the CIRB, which eventually saw a previously rejected tentative agreement forced upon the employees.
Prof. Smith said Ottawa should not be making up public policy as it goes along, and a debate was needed to determine what level of intervention was acceptable and what form that should take.
“The feds are players as opposed to overseers in this process,” he said. “This whole thing is a continued perversion of the normal collective bargaining process.”
Ms. Raitt said Air Canada and its unions should take a lesson from the current round of bargaining.
“We have seen four failed ratifications. We have seen very difficult negotiations at tables that culminate in agreements that members simply don’t ratify,” she said. “Air Canada management and Air Canada unions should really take a lesson from this and determine what their own internal labour relations are like because it is not the role of the Canadian government to put this much effort all the time into one single company.”