Canada's airports snarled by Air Canada strike

10:48, June 15, 2011      

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Airport workers of Air Canada stage a strike outside the terminal of Pearson Airport in Toronto, Canada, June 14, 2011. The Canadian Auto Workers union, which represents the 3,800 airport workers of Air Canada, called on a strike on Tuesday due to the breakup of negotiations with employers regarding pension and salaries. (Xinhua/Zou Zheng)

by Mark Bourrie

Air Canada's service agents and ground workers walked out at midnight Monday on issues of pensions and wages, throwing the country's air travel system into a tailspin.

The federal government filed notice Tuesday that it will introduce legislation to end the strike. However, it is expected to last several more days.

The strike by 3,800 customer service workers and 600 call center employees has not stopped the airline from flying, but it has caused the country's airports to become jammed with angry passengers as managers of Air Canada, which was used to be owned by the Canadian government but was privatized in 1988, try to handle personally ticket sales and luggage.

The Canadian Auto Workers Union, which represents the 3,800 striking employees, says the union and airline are still far apart on the issues of pensions and wages.

Air Canada says it cannot afford to fund the employees' pension system, which promises employees a guaranteed retirement income based on their wages and adjusted for inflation.

The company said it wants pension payments to be based on earnings from pension fund investments, rather than guarantee regular monthly payments. It now has more retirees on pensions than working employees.

Air Canada has about 13 billion Canadian dollars in pension commitments to 26,000 active employees and 29,000 retirees. Estimates in January found that the plan is underfunded by about 2. 1 billion Canadian dollars.

"Over the past eight years, Air Canada was faced twice, in 2003 and 2009, with situations where the pension deficit could not be managed because of its size and threatened to bankrupt the company, " airline management said in a letter to employees late last week.

Air Canada claims its 2.1-billion Canadian dollars pension solvency deficit "is not sustainable and has not been sustainable for most of the decade, and this puts at risk both the health of the company and the pensions of all employees."

Flights at major airports were delayed early in the morning and airports were packed with passengers Tuesday. Air Canada managers, accompanied by private security guards, sold tickets and checked luggage.

Customers were asked to travel without luggage. If they did have suitcases, they were told to bring them to the airport 24 hours before their flights.

"All tickets will be honoured," chief operating officer Duncan Dee said in a video release. "We advise strongly against checking in baggage."

Outside Toronto's main airport, picketers carried a massive sign that said "Corporate Greed Hurts Everyone."

Canadian Labor Minister Lisa Raitt, who is also dealing with a major work disruption in the country's postal system, said in Parliament Tuesday that the government will pass a law to end the strike. She said in a statement the Canadian government is disappointed that Air Canada and the National Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation and General Workers Union of Canada (CAW- Canada) have been unable to reach an agreement.

"The Government of Canada remains concerned about the effects a work stoppage will have on our fragile economic recovery and on Canadians during this busy travel season. The Government urges both parties to reach a negotiated agreement as soon as possible, as the best solution is always the one the parties reach themselves," Raitt said.

Pilots could strike later this summer, but their union is scheduled to continue negotiations in July for a new contract.

Over the years, as Air Canada has passed through bankruptcies and financial crises, the company's unions have agreed to accept numerous concessions worth billions of dollars. However, they have demanded the company continue to fund workers' defined benefit pension plans.

Source: Xinhua

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