Air Canada union rejects deal, set to strike

Air Canada's flight attendants have rejected a tentative deal reached between their union and the airline and are poised to go on strike immediately after midnight Thursday morning.
Air Canada's sales and support staff, seen during a rally at Toronto's Pearson International Airport in June, walked off the job for three days before reaching a deal with the airline. Now the flight attendants say they're prepared to follow suit. ((Priya Sankaran/CBC))

Air Canada's flight attendants have rejected a tentative deal reached between their union and the airline and are poised to go on strike at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing 6,800 flight attendants at the carrier, said 65 per cent of members who cast ballots voted to reject the deal, but didn't say how many voted.

It's the second time flight attendants have turned down a tentative agreement with the airline. They voted 87 per cent against ratifying the previous effort, in August.

"We ask the federal government, in the strongest possible terms, to respect our right to collective bargaining and not intervene unilaterally in this dispute," Jeff Taylor, president of CUPE's branch for Air Canada flight attendants, said in a statement Sunday night.

After the first day of a three-day walkout by Air Canada's sales and support staff in June, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt indicated she was introducing back-to-work legislation. The airline and the Canadian Auto Workers union reached a deal the next day. Raitt vowed last month to force a contract on flight attendants, too, if they walk off the job.

Taylor said this second rejection by attendants shows how frustrated they are with the airline after years of giving concessions in wages and benefits.

Air Canada issued a statement indicating it hoped to avoid a work stoppage, but said it would maintain a partial schedule in the event of a strike. Customers who have already bought tickets will be allowed to change their travel dates at no charge starting six days ahead of their departure, the airline said.

"We are perplexed and disappointed that two tentative agreements negotiated in good faith and unanimously recommended by the democratically elected representatives of our flight attendants have failed to be ratified," chief operating officer Duncan Dee said.

Union leaders had predicted the second, revamped offer, reached Sept. 20, would be approved. They said they had managed to get about 80 per cent of what the membership was demanding in the areas of wages, pensions, crew rest, working conditions and work rules.

Ashley Kelahear, a spokeswoman for Raitt, said the government was disappointed by the vote result.

"The government will be considering its options, however we will be clear that a work stoppage is unacceptable in this time of fragile economy," she said in an email Sunday.