By Joe Brancatelli
Maybe it's just me, but Canada seemed so much easier to understand when the McKenzie Brothers explained it all. Without them to guide us during this season of strikes (and near-strikes) at Air Canada, I'm adrift. But here is my best shot at keeping you up-to-date with the rapidly changing developments in the skies of the Great White North. For the record: I prefer sausage to back bacon. And I'm a Molson Red Export guy, but a Molson Golden will do in a pinch. (As always, read backward, like a Pinter play, since the most recent dispatch is posted at the top of this page.)

10/12/11, 9PM ET, WEDNESDAY

The CUPE union, which represents Air Canada's 6,800 flight attendants, has "postponed" a strike planned for 12:01 am Thursday. The move comes after the Conservative government of Stephen Harper used an unprecedented move--referring the dispute to the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB)--to stop the strike.

According to people on both sides familiar with the intricacies of Canadian labor law, the loophole was the government's claim that there are "health and safety" issues of public interest as well as "essential service" issues that affect the public. That essentially forced CIRB to tell the union to delay a strike, the first time that anyone can remember the quasi-judicial board being used to stop a pending and otherwise legal strike.

While the move temporarily stops the strike, Labor Minister Lisa Raitt has gone further by asking the CIRB to force a settlement if the two sides cannot agree on a contract. There's no precedent for that move, either.

What makes all of this especially bizarre is that Air Canada is not a Canadian government service, but a private company. Moreover, Air Canada never raised health, safety or essential-service concerns during negotiations. While CUPE officials and Air Canada reached two tentative settlements, rank-and-file flight attendants roundly rejected both deals. The arguments primarily have been financial and procedural. (Air Canada wants to set up a low-fare carrier using a different wage scale and potentially non-union employees.)

Raitt's appeal to the CIRB is seen by most observers as a way to delay the strike long enough for the Harper government to propose back-to-work legislation in the House of Commons. (That is the usual route for stopping a strike in Canada.) But since the Commons has been in recess this week and the Harper government made no move to recall the body, the strike would have started without the CIRB maneuver. And back-to-work legislation also faces a long, hard road in the Commons because the opposition parties, especially the NDP and Liberals, have fought the Harper government's increasing reliance on legislation to stop otherwise legal strike action.

"It'll be harder to come to an agreement now," one Canadian labor observer told me via E-mail this evening. "There's a lot of bad blood from previous labor-management tussles at Air Canada and this unique approach to stopping a strike won't make the flight attendants more amendable in dealing with Air Canada. And I think the Harper government has shown its hand. It's going to try to stop a strike no matter what the legal niceties are."

No talks have been scheduled or held between Air Canada and the union since the flight attendants voted down the tentative contract agreement last Sunday.

10/12/11, 4:30PM ET, WEDNESDAY

Is the strike of Air Canada's 6,800 flight attendants off? Maybe.

Air Canada certainly thinks so. It has posted an "all clear" notice on its home page. (See it here.) The Canadian government obviously thinks so. With just hours to go before the 12:01 am Thursday strike deadline, Canadian Labor Minister Lisa Raitt referred the issue to the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB). As you can read in the CBC's report, the head of the CIRB thinks so, too. He says the flight attendants cannot strike while his agency considers matters.

But the flight attendants and thier union (CUPE) aren't so sure. They call the referral to the CIRB and the board's insistence that a strike cannot proceed during deliberations "outrageous." (Read the CUPE statement here.) The experts on Canadian labor law that I've consulted use the words "unprecedented" and "questionable" to describe the CIRB maneuver. They say a CIRB referral has never been used to stop a legally permissible strike and the CIRB cannot stop an ongoing job action simply by claiming it is considering the issues.

Whether the union strikes tonight as originally intended may only be something we know as the 12:01 am deadline is reached.

A note of interest: Several times this year, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pushed back-to-work legislation through the House of Commons to stop otherwise legally mounted strikes. At least one union, which represents Canadian postal workers, this morning sued to overturn the back-to-work law the government imposed in that dispute.

A brief recap of the Air Canada situation: Flight attendants have twice this year rejected contract offers from Air Canada and have posted the required 72 hours notice of a job action. To stop a strike, the sitting government would normally have to ask Parliament to pass back-to-work legislation. The Canadian House of Commons is in recess this week and won't be back in session until Monday, October 17.

10/12/11, 12PM ET, WEDNESDAY

The potential strike of Air Canada flight attendants is a situation that gets weirder and weirder.

As you know, the airline's 6,800 flight attendants have rejected two previously negotiated potential settlements and have called for a strike to begin at 12:01 am, Thursday, October 13. That is their legal right and it seems clear that they intend to do so. Moreover, there are currently no talks between the two sides and no negotiations are scheduled.

When this new strike date was set, Canadian Labor Minister Lisa Raitt said she would try to block the strike. The normal course of action, going before the House of Parliament and getting emergency back-to-work legislation passed, was not immediately open to her. Parliament is out of session this week (Monday was Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday in Canada.) and would have to be recalled. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made no recall move. Moreover, recall notices usually have a 48-hour window. Why the government, which has been railing against the flight attendants in the media for days, has not issued a recall notice is a matter for speculation.

Yesterday, in a television interview, Raitt announced that she would stop the strike before it starts with a bureaucratic end-around: referral to a federal tribunal called the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB). A CIRB referral might stop a strike while the board considers the matter. But it also might not. A referral has apparently never been used to stop a strike, according to most Canadian labor experts I have consulted.

As of noon ET today, however, Raitt has not even referred the matter to the CIRB. Once again, why the government rails at the union in the media, but doesn't act to stop a strike is a matter of speculation.

The union, CUPE, has issued a statement reiterating its intention to strike at 12:01 am tomorrow. And, as you can see (http://cupe.ca/airlines/air-canada-flight-attendants-ready), the logic is impeccable: The flight attendants have the legal right to strike, the House of Commons hasn't voted to stop its strike and since there has not yet been a CIRB referral, a CIRB judgment or an order from the CIRB not to strike, there is no impediment there, either.

If you are scheduled to fly Air Canada tomorrow (or are scheduled to fly on Air Canada metal carrying the code of a Star Alliance carrier), you are going to want to watch this situation carefully. It's much more dynamic than logic would dictate.

10/11/11, 11:30PM ET, TUESDAY

Canadian Labor Minister Lisa Raitt says she'll block a strike by Air Canada flight attendants by turning the matter over to an independent, quasi-judicial government agency called the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB).

Raitt made the comments this evening on Canadian television. But there's a real question as to whether a CIRB referral alone can stop a strike. As I understand it after talking to Canadian labor-law experts, CIRB referrals to stop strikes are very rare. Moreover, a CIRB referral alone may not be enough to stop a job action. The body, whose job it is to interpret labor law, can't act until it makes a finding. That could take days.

Besides, these experts tell me, there isn't necessarily grounds for a CIRB judgment against Air Canada's 6,800 flight attendants. They have legitimately voted against two contract proposals this year and now have the legal right to strike. Moreover, despite Raitt's claims in previous disputes involving Air Canada strikes this year, labor experts say Air Canada bargained away the right to claim it was an "essential service." That would impede Raitt's ability to pass back-to-work legislation and the CIRB's ability to stop a strike based on national necessity.

And a reminder here: Canadians in general remain much more union-friendly than the U.S. public. Raitt has proven to be a mercurial minister. And unlike the U.S. president, who can stop an airline strike by executive order, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not have that right. He and his Conservative government must propose and pass condition-specific back-to-work laws. His most recent attempt (in a post office dispute) generated real pushback from his more liberal political opponents in the House of Commons.

10/10/11, 5PM ET, MONDAY

Today is Thanksgiving Day, a national Canadian holiday, but Canadian and transborder flyers have had little for which to be thankful.

As I mentioned on Friday, a work-to-rules protest by security screeners at Toronto/Pearson airport was causing delays of up to four hours on Air Canada international and transborder flights. The screeners, who work for a private firm called Garda, have a dispute with management over scheduling issues. The Canadian Industrial Relations Board twice ordered Garda employees to halt their job action, but since the employees were only working to rules, not necessarily doing anything illegal, the mandates had little effect. In essence, the screeners were poring over X-rays of each bag, "wanding" every traveler and hand-inspecting all carry-ons.

The good news, however, is that a mediator appointed by Canadian Labor Minister Lisa Raitt is now involved and delays to clear security have dropped to around 30-40 minutes in Toronto. Travelers on WestJet and other carriers generally haven't been affected by the Garda disruption.

However, a more ominous situation has developed with Air Canada's approximately 6,800 flight attendants. For the second time this year, they have overwhelmingly voted against a tentative contract agreement negotiated by their union and Air Canada management. As a result, the union (called CUPE) has once again announced a strike, which could begin as early as Thursday morning, October 13, at 12:01 am.

Labor Minister Raitt claims she will try to stop the strike with government action. Raitt's threats ring a little hollow, however, since the government must introduce and pass legislation in Parliament to stop the strike. She can't move the bill (much less get it passed) if Parliament isn't working. And, in fact, the House of Commons is not scheduled to be in session this week and would need to be recalled. That would take 48 hours if usual protocols are followed.

At the moment, Air Canada has issued a reaccommodation policy, which you can view here: http://aircanada.com/en/news/trav_adv/labour_updates.html

A special reminder to Star Alliance carriers: Air Canada flights carry the codes of several Star Alliance members, including United and Continental airlines. So check your flight schedule in the next few days carefully.

10/7/11, 1PM ET, FRIDAY

A labor dispute is causing gigantic security delays at Toronto/Pearson Airport, especially at Terminal 1, where many of the transborder flights operate. If you're using YYZ, be prepared. And, no, the folks doing this work-to-rules campaign are not federal employees. It's a dispute between them and a private security contractor hired by CATSA, Canada's airport and airline security agency.

9/22/11, 8PM ET, THURSDAY

Air Canada averted a strike by its 6,800 flight attendants this week. The airline and the union, CUPE, cut a new contract agreement. The deal now goes to the union rank-and-file for approval, which isn't a sure thing. Flight attendants voted down an earlier agreement. There's a lot of bad blood between rank-and-filers and management due to huge concessions the union made while Air Canada bosses continued to earn high salaries and bonuses.

9/18/11, 4PM ET, SUNDAY

The union that represents Air Canada's 6,800 flight attendants served notice on Friday (September 16) that it intends to strike as early as 12:01 am on Wednesday morning (September 21). That would surely shut down much of Air Canada's schedule as well as code-share flights it operates on behalf of Continental and United airlines as part of the Star Alliance.

Air Canada has already posted a reaccommodation policy that uses a rolling, six-day window for changes to your original flight. You can view the information at http://aircanada.com/en/news/trav_adv/labour_updates.html

As a matter of background, you should know that the rank-and-file flight attendants have already turned down an earlier settlement offer and have voted 98 percent to strike. The CUPE union that represents the flight attendants and Air Canada have been involved in mediated negotiations ever since.
If there is a strike, expect Canada's Conservative government to go to Parliament and appeal for back-to-work law. Unlike labor practices in the U.S. airline industry, however, the Canadian prime minister does not have the unilateral power of the U.S. president. He cannot immediately stop an airline strike by executive order. The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, must ask the Commons to vote to stop it.

As you may recall (okay, you probably don't) Air Canada was struck by a different union earlier this year. At the time, the Canadian Labor Minister, Lisa Raitt, seemed clueless about the relatively minor impact of the check-in agents strike. There were few cancellations and only scattered delays even as she was suggesting that the national air-traffic system was on the verge of collapse.

If the flight attendants strike, however, the impact on the Air Canada system will be much more severe. The government may be more or less informed this time, but the Commons would probably be predisposed to stop a strike to keep Air Canada flying. The process is messy, however, and could take several days after the strike begins, especially if House members from the Liberal and NDP parties try to filibuster or otherwise slow down a law.

You can follow Air Canada's updates at its Twitter feed: http://twitter.com/#!/aircanada

The flight attendant's union Web site is here (http://cupe.ca/) and you can follow its Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/#!/cupenat

6/16/11, 8:15PM ET, THURSDAY

The union representing about 3,800 of Air Canada's airport check-in agents and other employees called a strike on Tuesday (June 14). The employees walked but, except for a few cancellations and some longer-than-usual lines during the morning rush hours at Air Canada's Toronto/Pearson hub, the airline has operated relatively smoothly. But no one told the Canadian government that the sky wasn't falling. Conservative Labor minister Lisa Raitt rushed into the Canadian House of Commons today and demanded an emergency law to force the union back to work. Her rationale? The Canadian air travel system would collapse next week if the striking employees didn't return immediately. When challenged by opposition parliamentarians, who pointed out that the system was running just fine, Raitt insisted the situation couldn't last and collapse was imminent. I guess we'll never know, though. Late this afternoon, the striking union and Air Canada settled their dispute by referring a contentious pension issue to arbitration.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.