For Air Canada workers, tentative pact in tough conditions

Workers at Canada's national airline reached a tentative agreement with management last week, perhaps ending the possibility of a second Air Canada strike, which would have grounded about 6,800 flight attendants.

The company's customer service and sales workers, represented by the Canadian Auto Workers, also went on strike this summer for three days.

Subject to member ratification within three weeks, officials offered support for the deal earlier this month.

The five-year agreement includes wage increases as well as improvements to working conditions and benefits such as rest periods and meal allowances. It also secures work at a regional carrier based in Halifax.

A federally appointed conciliator, first requested by the union in early June, provided assistance in reaching the agreement.

Some aspects of pension changes will be referred to arbitration while the union presents the plan to members. Jeffrey Taylor, president of CUPE's Air Canada section, described the bill as "the best agreement we could get in the current context" in a CUPE statement released last week. Susan Welscheid, senior vice-president of customer service, also voiced support for the agreement.

The agreement was reached after seventeen weeks of negotiation following the earlier agreement's expiration in March. In June, CUPE denounced the Conservative government's threat of using back-to-work legislation on Air Canada employees.

Weeks earlier, the government attempted to legislate Canada's striking postal employees back to work, blocked in part by filibustering from the labor-backed New Democratic Party. The CAW strike also ended upon Minister of Labor Lisa Raitt's preparation of legislation requiring a return to work.

As well, just over two thirds of Air Canada pilots voted against a tentative agreement reached in May, while mechanics and baggage handlers were expected to resume bargaining.

In each case, the unions are resisting the introduction of a defined contribution plan for new hires. Such a plan would calculate benefits based upon future investment performance, rather than determining benefit amounts beforehand. Therefore, as they are dependent upon the changing value of pension funds, payout levels are not guaranteed. It is also common for defined contribution plans to lack provisions for tying benefits to inflation. Union officials have argued that the airline is doing significantly better than in years past despite the rising cost of fuel.

Air Canada is the world's ninth largest passenger airline by fleet size and was an independent government-owned enterprise since 1977 until its privatization in the late 1980s. It acquired its largest competitor Canadian Airlines in 2001.

Cory Collins is a Canadian youth care worker and member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, the province's largest labor union.

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