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Air Canada prepares for strike as negotiations set to resume after break

Air Canada has initiated parts of a plan to continue flying through a flight attendants strike even as its negotiators prepare to return to the bargaining table Tuesday afternoon.

The Montreal-based airline has started contacting passengers and making changes to some of its flights operated by its regional partner Jazz in preparation for a potential strike early Wednesday.

The airline says the changes are being made to some regularly scheduled Air Canada Express flights operated by its regional partner Jazz on Wednesday in order to serve the greatest number of passengers.

Air Canada is also offering customers who are booked to travel over the next six days a chance to change their flight dates free of charge.
The carrier’s mainline flights are not currently affected by the contingency schedule preparations. But industry observers believe it would use trained managers and office personnel to maintain flights on its most lucrative routes.

The goal will be to preserve market share against rivals WestJet Airlines and Porter Airlines and rely on Star Alliance partners to supply other service.

The preparations are gearing up after talks broke off late Monday without an agreement.

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the company’s preference is to reach a deal with the Canadian Union of Public Employees without the federal government stepping in with back-to-work legislation.

The union said in an emailed statement that talks were expected to resume sometime in the afternoon.

In the meantime, the union held rallies at Parliament Hill in Ottawa and other locations as a show of support. In Toronto, the protest began at 10 a.m. outside Pearson Airport, at the Viscount train station. Similar rallies were held at 10 a.m. local time in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver.

Sal Occhiuzzi, 54, a flight attendant for 31 years, said workers just want a fair deal that will allow them to recover some of the money lost in the last decade.

“We helped the company out when things were tough and we all gave a lot and it’s time for the company to give a bit back,” he said at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Banging drums and toting signs, flight attendants rallied at the country’s largest airport, backed by several other of the airline’s unions.

Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan said it is wrong for the federal government to use its majority to “beat down on workers.”

He said Labour Minister Lisa Raitt has got to back out of private sector negotiations.

“You know they are turning the House of Commons into the House of Air Canada by interfering in the collective bargaining process.”

In Ottawa, CUPE national president Paul Moist urged the federal government not to intervene in the strike, saying Raitt is the country’s labour minister not the minister of management.

“We celebrate our democracy around the planet. We call on China to respect human rights. Well, one of the fundamental human rights of any free and democratic society are labour rights,” Moist said in an interview in Ottawa.

While the union doesn’t want to inconvenience Air Canada’s passengers he said “it’s an inconvenience for Air Canada workers to be working at wages they earned prior to 2004,” Moist said.

The flight attendants have threatened to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday morning if their demands aren’t met.

Raitt said in a televised interview Tuesday she hopes the two sides can come to terms without the need for federal back-to-work legislation.

“When I met with them yesterday, they indicated they were very close to a deal, that they would be able to push through the last little bit and they would find a solution and a collective agreement,” Raitt told CBC television.

“It’s in their hands to reach a deal. They indicated they were able to reach a deal, so that’s my expectation.”

The government’s threat of back-to-work legislation is playing right into the hands of the union, says a former Air Canada director of employee relations.

George Smith, currently a fellow at Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies, said the airline believes it would have the upper hand to fight a strike in pursuit of its financial objectives.

Faced with high unemployment, the travelling public wouldn’t likely be sympathetic to travel disruptions, he said in an interview.

“The balance of power would have perceived to be in their hands and it now might have shifted as a result of our friends in government.”

Smith said the recent arbitration ruling granting the union’s proposal for a hybrid pension plan for new customer service hires has prevented Air Canada from achieving its objectives.

Left only to choose between proposals from each side, the arbitrator chose the path of gradualism over more radical change advocated by the airline.

That would be repeated again if the Conservatives end a strike by flight attendants and send the dispute to binding arbitration.

“Now that the arbitration award is out there if I’m the union I’m saying hey why would I settle if I could do better at arbitration.”

A walkout in June by the airline’s customer service agents lasted just three days before a deal was reached under a threat by Raitt that she would legislate them back to work.

NDP Labour critic Yvon Godin said the government is taking away the workers’ right to negotiate.

“The strike is even not started yet and she’s already telling Canadians in this country under the Conservative government there’s no strike,” he said.

While the strike by customer service agents slowed operations for the airline in June, Air Canada did not cancel any flights.

In August, the Air Canada flight attendants resoundingly rejected a tentative deal CUPE negotiated with the airline, forcing the two sides back to the drawing board.

The key areas of dispute are wages, pensions, crew rest, working conditions and work rules.

Labour leader Sid Ryan speaks in the video.