The fragile labour peace between Air Canada and the union representing its customer service workers could be in jeopardy after the airline challenged an arbitrator's ruling on pensions, the union's head said Monday.
In federal court filings, Air Canada takes issue with the decision to create a dual-structure pension plan for new hires and wants a federal court to review how the arbitrator reached his binding decision in June.
CAW national director Ken Lewenza said Air Canada's request amounts to a violation of the collective agreement.
"If they think they can just send an agreed upon solution to a judiciary system, then to me, that challenges the whole integrity of the collective agreement," Lewenza said.
"These guys think they're bigger than the law, they think they're bigger than collective bargaining and obviously I think it impedes the kind of relationship moving forward."
The arbitrator sided with the union's proposal for a hybrid pension plan. Newly hired customer service agents were to have a mixed defined benefit and define contribution pension formula while current employees remained in a defined benefit plan.
But the company says arbitrator Kevin Burkett unfairly accepted a last-minute CAW offer that amended the pension terms it was seeking.
It said the offer was made after each side submitted what were supposed to be their final offers.
"The board's jurisdiction was expressly limited to selecting one of two final offers and it exceeded that jurisdiction when it selected a third offer which was not a final offer," the company said in its application filed last week to both federal and Ontario courts.
Therefore, the arbitrator's decision was illegal, it concludes. It is asking the court to throw out the decision.
But Lewenza said the company agreed to allow the union to replace its final offer and also amended its own offer.
He said Air Canada's move means the union is also in a position to violate the agreement, with the possibility of direct job action, including protests, work to rule actions or even a strike.
"This may require direct action from our members again," he said.
"I know that's terrible and its inconvenient for our customers, but the fact of the matter is the labour relations environment at Air Canada has to be addressed."
Air Canada declined to comment Monday.
The two sides finally reached a deal this summer after a heated months-long dispute, a three-day strike and the threat of federal back to work legislation.
Impasse a risk
Lewenza said the latest impasse could cause the company problems when bargaining with other unions, such as the CUPE unit representing flight attendants in an upcoming arbitration process.
That's because the company made it clear to CAW that the deal reached with that union — especially on the pension issue, which has been central in negotiations with all unions — would set a precedent for potential agreements with others, he said.
"They've got multiple bargaining unit problems that are still outstanding — with the pilots, with the flight attendants — yet they want to continue to increase the labour relations problems that they have," Lewenza said.
An arbitrator will issue a binding agreement in about two weeks on the contract with flight attendants under federal labour laws that prevent a strike or lockout during that period.
The 6,800 Air Canada flight attendants rejected two tentative agreements that the union negotiated this year. They had threatened a strike last month and complained loudly that the airline had forced them to swallow too many concessions over the years.
The agreement reached during the summer with CAW still stands for now, Lewenza said, but the implementation of the new pension scheme is on hold.
Lewenza has sent a letter to Air Canada president and CEO Calin Rovinescu asking him to withdraw the company's request for review.
"I must say that in my many years as an elected CAW-Canada trade union representative there are few other employer decisions which I can identify as being as harmful and destructive to a collective bargaining relationship as this decision," he wrote.