Air Canada ground crew strike in Toronto ends

CHARMAINE NORONHA
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An Air Canada baggage handler talks on a cell phone during a a wildcat walkout at Toronto's Pearson International Airport early Friday March 23, 2012 causing some flights to be delayed. The job action began Thursday evening and left hundreds of passengers in limbo after they had to disembark from several flights already on the tarmac and head back to the terminal. (AP Photo/Victor Biro, The Canadian Press)

TORONTO (AP) — A wildcat strike by Air Canada ground workers that started in Toronto and spread to other airports ended Friday, several hours after Canada's largest airline was forced to cancel more than two dozen flights.

At least 50 Air Canada flights and some from other airlines to Canadian and U.S. destinations were delayed or canceled after the ground workers walked off the job Thursday evening, leaving hundreds of passengers in limbo.

Union spokesman Bill Trbovich said Friday that three workers were suspended at Toronto's Pearson International Airport after Canadian Labor Minister Lisa Raitt was heckled while walking through the airport late Thursday.

When word of the suspensions spread, Trbovich said, colleagues staged an illegal walkout, prompting the firing of 37 workers.

Trbovich said ground workers returned to their posts Friday morning after an arbitrator told them that everyone would be reinstated and there would be no punishment.

Trbovich said the union didn't sanction or condone the strike, which spread from Toronto to airports in Quebec City, Montreal and Vancouver.

Late Friday morning, a group of workers was still outside Pearson airport chanting "Shame on Lisa Raitt."

Trbovich said feelings have been running high after the government took away their right to strike and sent their contract dispute with the airline to arbitration.

"We regret that it happened," he said of the strike.

Raitt reacted to the walkout by warning that law enforcement had been notified and that stiff fines could be levied if the strike was ruled illegal.

Her statement said if the job action is ruled an illegal strike by the Canadian Industrial Resolution Board, "employees could face fines of up to $1,000 a day and the union could face fines of up to $100,000 a day."

Air Canada got an injunction against the striking workers and expects the "unions will obey the law," said spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick, who declined to comment on the union's explanation of what caused the strike.

Some customers would be unable to fly Friday because of the strike's lasting effects, Fitzpatrick said.

"It's clear there's been an impact, but how big we don't know, because we're still recovering," he said.

Air Canada has been plagued with labor troubles over the last year.

The airline and its pilots and mechanics have been in a bitter contract feud that prompted the federal government to recently step in with legislation banning strikes or lockouts at the airline, saying it had to act to protect the national economy.

Ottawa also had to intervene in contract disputes involving the airline's flight attendants and its customer service agents.

The wildcat strike comes a few days after more than 20 flights were canceled or delayed between Montreal and some other Canadian and U.S. cities when a number of pilots reportedly called in sick last weekend.

The walkout left hundreds of passengers in limbo. Many said they had no idea where their luggage was, or how they were going to get to their destinations.

Aaron Huizing was heading home from the Dominican Republic when the walkout began.

"I say the same thing every time: 'I'm never going to deal with Air Canada again.' Maybe next time I'll listen to myself," he said.

Air Canada issued a statement apologizing to its affected passengers and urging those with travel plans to check the status of their flights online. Passengers whose flights have been canceled will be permitted to rebook without penalty.