CAW members at Air Canada are coming down to the wire in their bargaining with the company, with a strike deadline set for this Monday at midnight. It’s really the first “normal” round of bargaining the workers have been able to undertake since 2000. Since then, they’ve been through two rounds of CCAA court-supervised restructuring bargaining, one arbitrated wage settlement in 2006 (since a condition of CCAA exit was no strikes for 6 years), and an emergency contract extension in 2009 (when the global financial crisis threatened to put Air Canada right back into CCAA). Over that decade, the workers have lost 10% of their real wage, several non-wage benefits (including considerable paid time off), and watched their pension fund become precariously underfunded due to repeated contribution holidays negotiated to address Air Canada’s cash flow challenges.

One round of bargaining can’t repair all that damage, of course, but the CAW members (like other Air Canada workers) are darned determined to at least start heading in the right direction. Air Canada, in contrast, seems to have become “hooked” on repeated concessions as a core feature of their business model. Despite decent profits, a lock on high-yield business travelers, and a growing global reputation for quality, the company has made enormous demands for still more concessions, including outsourcing, more part-time work, and pension reductions (including eliminating defined benefits for new hires, which inevitably means eliminating them for everyone).

The union has portrayed the fight at Air Canada as symbolic of the broader challenge we face to defend middle class jobs in the whole labour market. If you can’t count on a decent wage, benefits, and pensions at a world-class company like Air Canada, where can we possibly hope for them? (The same could be said of the current confrontation at Canada Post, the fight against privatization of public services, and many other current union campaigns.) Of course, a so-called “middle class” job is simply a working class occupation in which those doing the work have managed to win a decent standard of living. And that’s exactly the point: the continued exercise of union power (and other instruments of labour market regulation) is essential to preserve the very idea that workers are entitled to a decent income — rather than scrabbling at the bottom of a “deregulated” labour market.

To that end, here is an op-ed by Ken Lewenza, defining the fight at Air Canada as a fight for the middle class everywhere:

Looming strike at Air Canada reflects a larger tension in Canadian economy

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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Jim Stanford

Jim Stanford is economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, and divides his time between Vancouver and Sydney. He has a PhD in economics from the New School for Social Research in New York,...