Air Canada and pilots to return to bargaining table to try to reach agreement

TORONTO – Air Canada (TSX:AC.A) and its pilots will give negotiations one last try in an effort to avoid having to accept a settlement that would be imposed under recently passed federal legislation.

The two sides announced Thursday night that they’ve agreed to return to the bargaining table for 10 days to try to reach a tentative deal under the guidance of a federal arbitrator.

The airline was poised to lock out the pilots earlier this year, but the move was short-circuited by the federal government, which passed legislation blocking either side from initiating job action and imposing a new contract.

The move was angrily received by many of its 3,000 pilots, and was followed by some pilots calling in sick on more than one occasion, disrupting the airline’s schedule and angering passengers.<

Air Canada went to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, which said the so-called “sick-in,” which wasn’t officially backed by the union, amounted to an illegal strike.<

It was unclear whether the angry response from the pilots played a role in propelling the two sides back to the bargaining table. Both sides announced a media blackout was being imposed on the talks and refused to elaborate beyond their brief news releases.

It’s likely the unrest among the pilots in the wake of the federal legislation is a force propelling the two sides back the table, says a labour expert at Queen’s University.

“I think that the sick outs may have had an influence, but more because the pilot’s union is losing control and the (Air Canada) brand is being harmed by passenger disruptions,” George Smith, who was a former Air Canada employee relations director, said in an email.

“I think (Air Canada probably orchestrated this in an attempt to ‘take back’ the collective bargaining process,” he said.

A news release from Air Canada simply said the federal legislation contained a clause that allows the two sides to ask an arbitrator to “facilitate” negotiations.

The Air Canada Pilots Association said in a release that Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt was to appoint an arbitrator soon. Once that was done, the negotiations could start. Raitt’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The pilot’s union said if the talks failed to produce a tentative agreement, the federal arbitration process imposing a settlement would proceed.

Air Canada has been beset by labour problems for most of the last year with all of its major unions.

The federal government also intervened this year to prevent a strike by Air Canada ground crews. Some ground staff in Toronto staged a wildcat strike to show their anger with the move disrupting the airline’s operations.

Last year Air Canada ticket agents and customer service staff staged a brief strike before reaching a deal after Raitt threatened to legislate them back to work. Raitt also pulled levers behind the scenes when flight attendants rejected a tentative agreement and held a strike vote.

The rollercoaster of labour unrest at Canada’s airline has prompted many of its customers to look at alternatives to getting to their destinations.

It’s a message that appears to have not been lost on Air Canada senior management. In a letter to airline staff last month, CEO Calin Rovinescu wrote: “Our immediate focus now has to be to work doubly hard to regain that confidence – and we have our work cut out for us as we’ve disappointed them all too frequently lately.”