OTTAWA — Air Canada’s biggest union says it’s threatening to strike just as the busy March Break travel season gets under way because its members are angry over what they consider the airline’s refusal to deal with pension issues in its latest contract proposal.
Union vice-president Dave Ritchie said Wednesday the machinists, cargo agents and baggage handlers rejected a tentative deal because Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) hasn’t addressed their pension concerns, especially after they agreed to millions of dollars in cost cutting to help the airline restructure.
“In my 40 years of collective bargaining, I have never seen the level of anger that I have seen in the membership at Air Canada,” Ritchie said at a news conference in Toronto just hours after the union served notice of its intention to strike.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said its 8,600 members will walk off the job if they don’t get a new deal by 12:01 a.m ET on Mar. 12.
Ritchie said the negotiating committee underestimated the anger of its membership, who rejected the tentative deal by a 66 per cent margin. Of particular concern is a sizable pension deficit, which the union says Air Canada has not dealt with, despite the sale of billions of dollars in assets.
Ritchie accused the company of failing to negotiate an acceptable agreement, while betting on the federal government’s willingness to intervene.
However, Ritchie said if the union were to strike, flights would have to be grounded because its members provide crucial services such as fixing and de-icing planes. The union members last went on strike in 1987, an action that halted service at the airline for about 20 days.
“If we hit the lines, flights will be grounded,” he said.
“We don’t want to inconvenience anybody, a lot of these people that are going to be travelling are our own families.”
However, he added he hopes Labour Minister Lisa Raitt will allow the parties to negotiate an acceptable agreement.
Raitt, who has moved swiftly in the past to intervene in labour disputes at the country’s biggest airline, said the government is taking the threat seriously and is concerned a strike would disrupt the travel plans of thousands and have a big negative impact on the economy.
“This is a particularly bad time for thousands of families,” Raitt said in an emailed statement.
“We encourage both parties to avoid a work stoppage and restore confidence for the travelling public and Canadian job creators that rely on commercial air services.”
In a brief statement posted on the IAMAW Local 2323 website, the union says, “We are the largest unionized workforce at Air Canada, without us, it’s all grounded.”
However, Duncan Dee, Air Canada executive vice-president and chief operating officer, attempted to downplay the possibility of travel chaos should there be a strike.
“Should a settlement not be reached and the IAMAW commences job action, the airline will endeavour to minimize inconvenience to its customers,” Dee said in a statement.
“The lines of communication remain open and we are hopeful that there remains sufficient time to avoid a work disruption.”
Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel urged the government not to step in to end the conflict before it has reached at least the mediation stage.
“We feel sorry the people who might be affected by the negotiation at Air Canada, but for us it is clear we need to let go the process to make sure that everything has been done to resolve the problems,” Turmel said.
The Conservative government’s recent history of intervening in Air Canada labour disputes, however, suggests it’s not likely Ottawa will stand idly by.
Last month, Raitt — insisting a work stoppage would not be in the best interests of the fragile Canadian economy — stepped in to impose a six-month mediation process after the airline’s pilots voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike.
In September, the airline reached a deal with its flight attendants after a strike vote that prompted Raitt to warn of back-to-work legislation if a deal couldn’t be reached. In June, a similar threat ended a walkout by the airline’s customer service agents after just three days.
The latest sign of labour trouble came after Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) workers rejected a tentative contract settlement signed in February and gave their union a 78 per cent strike mandate.
Many Air Canada workers are trying to win back pay and concessions they gave up to help the airline restructure under bankruptcy protection in 2003 and 2004.
In its financial report issued last month, Air Canada said it lost $60 million in the fourth quarter of 2011 and $249 million for the year.
The airline is Canada’s largest domestic and international full-service airline providing scheduled and charter air transportation for passengers and cargo to more than 175 destinations on five continents.
It is the world’s 15th largest commercial airline, providing service to more than 32 million passengers a year.