Air Canada's striking customer service and sales staff held protests at airports across the country Wednesday as the possibility of back-to-work legislation loomed.

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt has said the Conservative government is ready to introduce back-to-work legislation as early as Thursday if the airline and its striking workers fail to reach a new contract agreement.

The legislation is not expected to pass before the weekend.

The Canadian Auto Workers union, which represents the 3,800 striking workers, condemned the move and continued protests at airports across the country and outside Raitt's constituency office in Milton, Ont.

The strikers also received support from about 200 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers who stopped working for about 20 minutes Wednesday morning at Pearson airport to show solidarity with their fellow Air Canada employees.

Raitt reiterated Wednesday that the government would prefer a negotiated settlement to legislation.

"We want them to settle their own dispute," Raitt told CBC's Power & Politics.

"But what we are saying is that if we are at an impasse, and it's going to be a continued, protracted strike that's going to end up hurting the Canadian economy and third parties who are really innocent in this matter, then we will introduce back-to-work legislation, and that's what is going to happen tomorrow."

Air Canada's great pension divide

Why the union is fighting the airline's concession demands so hard and why Air Canada says it has no choice but to make them.

The airline employees first walked off the job at 12:01 a.m. ET Tuesday after talks failed, with concerns over employee pensions as the main sticking point.

Air travellers have faced some delays, but there have been no major disruptions.

Raitt said that both parties have indicated that its "only a matter of time until a work-stoppage caused both a serious disturbance on both the flying public and on the economy itself."

CAW union president Ken Lewenza said Wednesday there was "no reasonable explanation" for the government's decision to table back-to-work legislation so quickly.

He told Power & Politics that he would be speaking to lawyers to determine what the union could do if the legislation is passed.

Forcing Air Canada employees back to work

Notice of back-to-work legislation tabled: Tuesday, June 14.

Earliest date for introducing it: Thursday, June 16.

Debate: The NDP are likely to delay the legislation as long as possible, with leader Jack Layton already coming out against it. The House is scheduled to rise June 23 and isn't sitting June 17 because of the federal NDP convention. Plus, the opposition parties have two days where they get to control the agenda — not the government. So the House could rise for the summer without passing the legislation.

When it could become law: Unclear.

"I believe, at the end of the day, there could be some defiance relative to this legislation," Lewenza said."I don't want to pre-judge that — I have a number of people that are reviewing our options as we speak — but just because a government in an un-democratic process said 'Hey, this is the way we're going to do things,' it doesn't make it right."

There were a few delays indicated on the Montreal airport's departures board, but operations appeared to be running smoothly. In Toronto, that airport's departures board was also showing some delays.

CBC reporter Carla Beynon said there were virtually no delays at the Calgary airport as managers stepped in to replace striking workers.

"We are maintaining our schedule and while there are a few delays, our performance is well within the norms for a typical June day," Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said Wednesday.

'Ongoing dialogue'

Fitzpatrick said the airline was pleased that it was able to keep operating, but he noted that they would "prefer a negotiated settlement with the CAW as soon as possible."

"Toward that end, there has been ongoing dialogue between the parties since the walkout, with a focus on possible resolutions to the pension issue, which is essentially the one outstanding item," he said.

Lewenza said he would also like to negotiate a settlement with Air Canada before the government forces employees back to work.

"For us, we really want to get a deal," said Lewenza. 

There was some dialogue between the two sides but no formal, face-to-face talks are scheduled, said union spokesman Darryl Bink.

NDP criticizes Tory plan

NDP Leader Jack Layton criticized the government's move, saying both sides should be left to work out an equitable deal.

"Labour disputes should be dealt with fairly at the bargaining table," Layton said Wednesday in the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday that the ongoing Air Canada and Canada Post labour disputes "are threatening greater and greater damage on other parties in the Canadian economy."

"That is not acceptable to the government," the prime minister said in the House of Commons. "This government will act to ensure that the Canadian economy and the wider interest of the Canadian public are protected."

With files from The Canadian Press