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Disgruntled Air Canada workers rally at Pearson airport, threaten strike Monday

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TORONTO - Air Canada customer service and sales staff are threatening to walk off the job Monday night if the airline doesn't budge on key concessions.

Hundreds of workers and labour rights activists rallied at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Thursday afternoon, a day before one of Air Canada's unions could serve notice of a strike.

Disgruntled workers brandished placards outside the domestic departures section of Terminal 1, chanting for the airline to give them "a fair deal."

"We have given 10 years of concessions" to bolster the struggling airline, said Lucinda Fernandes, a sales agent with the company for 31 years.

"This company is now on its feet and profitable and there is no reason why we should be giving any more concessions, especially touching our pensions," she said. "We are ready to walk. We don't want to — we love our jobs, we love the public and we don't want to see one passenger inconvenienced by this, but ... we will not have our pensions altered."

A proposal to change pension plans for new hires is a key issue as Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) and the Canadian Auto Workers union continue bargaining in Toronto.

Under the airline's proposal, new hires would receive defined-contribution pension plans instead of the defined-benefit plans employees currently earn.

The CAW, which represents 3,800 Air Canada customer service and airport workers, could serve 72 hours notice on Friday for a strike beginning at midnight June 13.

CAW president Ken Lewenza said the union would rather reach an agreement with Air Canada than call a strike, and will keep negotiating until the last minute.

But he said the talks have progressed slowly thus far.

"We've been at bargaining for 10 weeks now and we're making tiny progress," he told reporters at the rally. "But we can do a lot in the next 48 hours if Air Canada gets the concessions off the table and recognizes that the workers are part of their success."

Rotating strikes, such as the ones currently employed by Canada Post workers across the country, aren't an option, Lewenza said.

"Unless you use the maximum power of the workers to convince the employer that we've got to get a deal, we'll procrastinate forever," he said, noting union members voted 98 per cent in favour of a walkout.

Air Canada wouldn't comment on the status of the talks.

But spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the pensions proposal is "a common approach that other companies use" and that existing and retired employees wouldn't be affected by the change.

Air Canada is also facing backlash from some of its other unions over pensions and other issues.

On Monday, the Canadian Union of Public Employees — which represents 6,800 Air Canada flight attendants — asked for a federal conciliator to assist in its contract talks with the airline.

Air Canada was forced into creditor protection from April 2003 to September 2004, due in part to the cost of dealing with the company's pension deficit.

The company's unions agreed to accept numerous concessions worth billions to help the company to survive, but they insisted their defined-benefit pension plans be saved.

As of Jan. 1, the company's pension deficit was $2.1 billion.

If bargaining fails, the airline plans to maintain full operations by implementing a contingency service to minimize the impact on customers, Fitzpatrick said.

He wouldn't specify what the contingency plan entails, saying the company prefers to focus on negotiations.

Some travellers at the airport Thursday said they're worried a strike could disrupt their travel plans.

"We're debating even going," said Bren Hilton, of Victoria, B.C., who was in Toronto on her way to Paris for a weeklong trip.

She said Air Canada staff were vague about how the company would maintain services during a strike.

"We've asked about four different people," she said. "They say, 'Oh, you'll be taken care of,' but nobody's given any specifics as to who actually takes care of us, so we don't anticipate anything."

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