February 8, 2023 By Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press
CALGARY — The union representing WestJet pilots says contract negotiations with the airline have been unproductive and federal conciliation may be needed to avert a strike.
ALPA Canada, which represents approximately 1,800 pilots at WestJet and its low-cost subsidiary Swoop, says it has been negotiating unsuccessfully with the Calgary-based company since September.
“We’re getting very close, in our opinion, to being at an impasse,” said Bernie Lewall, chair of the union’s WestJet Pilots Association.
“I think it is very likely that we’re going to enter conciliation soon — as far as a strike, I can’t say.”
Under federal law, employers and unions can request help from the federal government through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to negotiate and renew collective agreements.
At issue for ALPA, Lewall said, are wages and scheduling concerns as well as the union’s desire to see all pilots that fly WestJet planes receive “equal pay for equal work.”
Currently, pilots who fly for the Swoop banner are paid less than pilots who fly for mainline WestJet. With WestJet’s proposed acquisition of leisure carrier Sunwing awaiting regulatory approval, Lewall said the union is concerned about the creation of yet another class of pilots with a different pay scale.
“We could get into a position where we potentially could have three airlines under the WestJet group of companies, all flying the same aircraft type for different wages and working conditions,” he said.
“We just see that as an attempt by management to work around the current WestJet pilots’ contract.”
In an emailed statement, WestJet spokeswoman Denise Kenny said the airline remains focused on successfully working with ALPA to reach an agreement.
“We are committed to working together to address issues raised by our valued pilots as we move forward through any required steps of the bargaining process,” Kenny said.
WestJet pilots first unionized in May 2017, marking a major shift in culture at the famously non-union airline.
Since then, other employee groups at the company have also unionized, including flight attendants and certain airport employees.
The pilots’ first union contract, which expired at the end of 2022, was the result of an arbitrated settlement reached in 2018.
That settlement averted a threatened pilots’ strike, as WestJet pilots had voted in favour of job action after contract talks fell apart.
“That first contract was deemed by our pilots and the association as a fairly poor contract,” Lewall said, adding the union’s stance is that WestJet pilots are paid “significantly less” than the North American average pilot salary.
“We feel it was one that was forced upon us. And we feel we’re trying to recover from that still today.”
The pilot contract talks come at a time when the aviation industry is still recovering from the economic losses it suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
An abrupt resurgence in travel demand in the wake of the lifting of pandemic restrictions in 2022 has occasionally left airlines scrambling, resulting in issues with delayed and cancelled flights, lost luggage and more.
The labour unrest also coincides with what aviation industry analysts say is a North America-wide pilot shortage, exacerbated by pandemic-related industry layoffs and retirements.
Lewall said WestJet pilots want to reach a deal with their employer, but added he believes there is still a strong sentiment against organized labour at the company that is making it difficult.
“There’s always been an anti-union attitude here amongst the management towards the pilots,” he said.
“We feel by and large that distrust and distaste of unions has still not resolved itself. It’s still very difficult for us to work collaboratively together.”