Air Canada and pilots navigate unfriendly skies

The government's latest intervention in relations between Air Canada and its pilots might have prevented stoppages over the busy March Break period, but it has not brought labour peace.

Government intervention partly to blame for acrimony, labour expert says

Air Canada pilots head to work at Pearson International Airport in Toronto earlier this month. Relations between the air carrier and its pilots have become increasingly acrimonious even as government legislation forestalled a strike or lockout. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

The government's latest intervention in relations between Air Canada and its pilots might have prevented stoppages over the busy March Break period, but it has not brought labour peace.

One labour expert says the government has played a role in the increased acrimony between the two sides over the past number of years.

"The government has made it worse," says Michael Lynk, who teaches labour law at the University of Western Ontario.

"When a government gives a signal as it has done with Air Canada over the last nine months that it will intervene to prevent any labour disruption at a company and then set up arbitration terms that generally favour the company, you set a further pattern of mistrust and a greater sense of employee alienation from their company."

The airline and pilots are embroiled in a bitter contract dispute, with the main issues being concerns over pension security and Air Canada's desire to start a low-cost airline. The government had forced the parties into mediation that had just begun when Air Canada served notice it would lock out the pilots at the same time the airline's machinists union planned to strike.

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt referred the matters to the Canada Industrial Relations Board to determine if there were health and safety reasons to prohibit a work stoppage. That bought the Conservative government time to pass pre-emptive back-to-work legislation that included imposing final-offer arbitration.

Recent internal emails from the union to its members and memos from the airline to the pilots show the degree of mistrust and animosity.

Fit to fly?

Earlier this month, the pilots association warned its members that increased stress "has been associated with pilot error" and reminded the pilots that under the law, they must self-assess whether or not they are fit to fly.

The airline interpreted that as a call to engage in illegal job action, such as mass numbers of sick calls or other work slowdowns, and responded with a memo of its own.

"Air Canada is monitoring delay, attendance, scheduling and other information on an ongoing basis," wrote Harlan Clarke, Air Canada's director of labour relations, to the pilots.

Clarke goes on to warn the pilots that "any type of concerted or common understanding activity ... amounts to an unlawful strike pursuant to the Canada Labour Code."

The pilots association did not take kindly to the memo.

"The only reason I can fathom that might explain your attempt at intimidating us is that you, yourself, are not a pilot," replies Jean-Marc Belanger, the chair of the union's master executive council, arguing Clarke is asking pilots to disregard the law if they feel they are unable to fly.

"The tone and the content of your letters speak volumes in respect of the attitude and consideration paid to their key employees by the executive management of this corporation."

Belanger points out that many Air Canada pilots, before they worked for the company, had saved lives in medical evacuation operations and fought in wars. He called the Air Canada memo "insulting."

Unconvinced, Air Canada filed a complaint with the CIRB, linking what the airline says is a marked increase in sick calls this past weekend to a slew of flight cancellations.

"We fully support pilots' legitimate rights to withdraw from flying and only fly when they feel it is safe to do so," said Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick in an email to CBC News. "What we do not support is pilots removing themselves from duty as part of a labour action."

The pilots dispute the number of sick calls and point to foggy weather as the main culprit for the cancellations.

Pilots' clout diminishing

The pilots association has, for many years, enjoyed a prestige and clout that Air Canada's other unions could only wish for. While the federal lobbying register shows that Air Canada executives are often in the offices of senior cabinet ministers, it also shows that the pilots union is active on Parliament Hill as well, especially compared with other labour organizations.

But its power appears to be diminishing.

"We tried to be an integral part, a positive force in our relations with the government," said Air Canada Pilots Association president Paul Strachan. "And we've pretty much been cast aside. Am I disappointed? You bet. Am I choked? Yeah, I am."

Lynk said the pilots will have to adapt.

"Generally, the pilots have had a much better relationship at Air Canada, with the company, than the other unions have," he says. "But now they realize they're treated no differently than the other bargaining units and they seem to have no lobbying clout with the government. I think you will begin to see them at least strive to find a new strategy to deal with these changing times."

In the meantime, the road ahead looks like it will only get rockier. In addition to the battles before the CIRB, the pilots are following the machinists union in challenging the government's back-to-work legislation in court.

When asked what could save the relationship between the pilots and the airline, Strachan argues only a wholesale change of the executive management team would do.

"There's no trust between any employee of Air Canada and the people in the executive offices."

Air Canada did not respond to a request for comment. But according to Lynk, restoring that trust is key for the company.

"If you end up having a contented work force that feels their work is respected and that they're being rewarded appropriately, generally you'll find that company provides better service."