Air Canada legislation OK'd by Ottawa

The House of Commons passed legislation early Wednesday to send a pair of labour disputes at Air Canada to binding arbitration.

Union slams federal government's intervention in advance of any work stoppage

Air Canada mechanics, baggage handlers and cargo agents protested the carrier's contract offer at Toronto's Pearson airport on Monday. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The House of Commons has passed legislation to send a pair of labour disputes at Air Canada to binding arbitration.

The legislation, which passed 155-124 on Wednesday, covers about 8,600 mechanics, baggage handlers and other ground crew and about 3,000 pilots.

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt had proposed the legislation on Monday, saying a work stoppage at Air Canada was something the country could not afford.

The pilots and the machinists union are the last two groups with which Air Canada needs to reach an agreement following deals with flight attendants and customer service agents.

Air Canada flights were set to stop this week after the airline said it would lock out its pilots and the machinists union said it would strike in the midst of the key spring school break.

However, Raitt stepped in and blocked a work stoppage by referring the matter to the Canada Industrial Relations Board.

Air Canada's largest employee union says the government's introduction of back-to-work legislation in advance of any work stoppage is an attack on workers' rights.

"The rights and wages of our members at Air Canada are being attacked by the federal government," Dave Ritchie, head of the Canadian branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said.

The legislation bars any labour disruption at Canada's largest airline.

"We will take swift actions to ensure that Canada's economic recovery is not negatively affected and that Canadians across the country who rely on air services are not unduly impacted," Raitt said Monday.

The language of the bill calls for an arbitrator to implement what's known as a final offer selection — an option in negotiations that have typically reached an impasse. Instead of negotiating a halfway point, a final offer selection involves both sides pitching their cases, and the arbitrator picks one over the other, as a basis for a new agreement.

Raitt defended that option Friday, noting the two sides have been at the bargaining table for the past 18 months without a solution.

"They've been around these issues," she told reporters in Ottawa. "It is appropriate for a final offer arbitration in this case."

"We're not saying the employer is correct and we're not saying the union is correct," Raitt added. "What we're saying is the Canadian public is caught in this and we're going to act because of them.

"It is time to get certainty back so they can move forward."

Closure motion

The government invoked closure Tuesday afternoon on a motion to speed up debate of the legislation, Bill C-33, bringing the motion to a vote in the House of Commons. The closure motion's passage was assured by the Conservatives' majority, setting up four hours of non-stop debate on the bill toward a final vote at about 1:30 a.m. ET Wednesday.

The bill will now go to the Senate, where the Conservatives will use their majority for similar swift passage, and the legislation could receive royal assent before the end of the week.

The machinists union had said the bill "goes beyond what was needed."

"It’s a sad day for any federally regulated worker in Canada because this legislation says you do not have the right to strike, period," Ritchie said. "This will undermine free collective bargaining and poison labour relations across Canada."

The airline says it is trying to strike a new deal with its business models to implement a sustainable model. For its part, the union wants to get back some concessions given up when the company restructured in 2004.