Wings Magazine

WestJet strike averted as Ottawa imposes arbitration on airline, mechanics

June 28, 2024  By Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

A WestJet plane waits at a gate at Calgary International Airport in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. WestJet is cancelling flights ahead of a possible strike its mechanics union. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

A possible long-weekend strike at WestJet has been averted.

The federal government on Thursday directed the airline and plane mechanics into binding arbitration, steering clear of a work stoppage that threatened to disrupt flights for hundreds of thousands of travellers over the Canada Day long weekend.

In a late-afternoon social media post, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan said he was invoking his authority under the Canada Labour Code to end the impasse between the two sides as the clock ticked down toward a Friday evening deadline.

“Strong first agreements set unions and employers on the path of collective bargaining,” O’Regan said in a statement.


“They set a strong foundation to build upon at the bargaining table and bring the parties one step closer to a strong second agreement and an even stronger third agreement — reached at the bargaining table. That’s what we want to see here.”

WestJet and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association both said they will abide by the order, with strikes and lockouts off the table.

“With the government’s actions, the summer travel plans of Canadians have been protected and we have a path to resolution,” said WestJet Airlines president Diederik Pen. No more flight cancellations are planned, after more than a dozen on Thursday.

The union, which had opposed arbitration by the country’s labour tribunal, took a less upbeat tone.

“There is no modern precedent for the minister’s action,” the association’s negotiating committee said in a statement. But it added that it will tell its approximately 680 workers “to refrain from any unlawful job action.”

Union members voted overwhelmingly to reject a tentative deal earlier this month and fought WestJet’s request for intervention by the Canada Industrial Relations Board.

In response to that request, the mechanics association served the company with an initial 72-hour strike notice on June 17, prompting WestJet to cancel nearly 50 flights last week before both sides agreed to resume negotiations.

The second strike notice came Tuesday amid tense negotiations over the collective agreement — the first between WestJet and the union.

The Calgary-based carrier had already begun to cancel flights this week, calling off roughly 25 trips on Thursday and Friday in anticipation of possible job action as early as 5:30 p.m. MDT on Friday. Affecting some 3,300 customers, WestJet’s decision to start concentrating its 180-plane fleet sought to avoid leaving aircraft in far-flung locations and stranding passengers and crew in the event of a work stoppage.

As negotiations around the contract dragged on in a windowless conference room at a hotel near Toronto’s Pearson airport, the tone of statements put out by the two sides grew chippier.

On Wednesday, the airline asked the tribunal to quash the latest strike notice and bar future ones — except on approval from the labour board. The affidavit from lawyer Simon Mortimer argued that the union was “moving backward” in the talks, pointing to one counter-offer from workers that called for “a 50 per cent cost increase” over the tentative agreement.

The union’s bargaining demands showed a failure to act in good faith and its public statements included “inflammatory” and “offensive” elements, the document claimed.

The union — the majority of its WestJet members are aircraft maintenance engineers (AMEs) who inspect each active plane daily — claimed the carrier was resorting to “false accusations” and “brinksmanship.”

In a statement, the mechanics’ negotiating committee retorted: “WestJet alleges that an AME strike would place the ‘company and the travelling public in peril at a critical time.’ It is difficult to conceive of a more inflammatory or offensive comment.”

Ian Evershed, a union representative involved in the talks, cited “some pretty intense moments” during the negotiations.

“We just aren’t seeing any progress,” he said in phone interview Wednesday.

Just over a year ago, the airline found itself in a similar situation after some 1,800 pilots threatened to walk off the job. WestJet averted a strike after reaching a last-minute deal in the wee hours ahead of a long weekend in May, but not before cancelling more than 230 flights and disrupting the travel plans of thousands of passengers.

The Canada Industrial Relations Board could opt not to suspend the right to a work stoppage as it hammers out a contract, but precedent and statements from the two parties suggests that outcome is a non-starter.

Both sides are slated to meet with the tribunal on Friday. “The board will then determine next steps or make the necessary rulings, as appropriate,” tribunal spokesman Jean-Daniel Tardif said in an email.

The mechanics are hoping for a raise well beyond WestJet’s initial offer of a roughly 10 per cent pay hike — it put forward a bigger one this week — in the first year of a five-and-a-half-year contract, Evershed said. He also pointed to counterparts in the United States who he said earn more than 1.5 times the current compensation level.

WestJet said it has offered a 12.5 per cent wage hike in the first year of the contract, and a compounded wage increase of 23 per cent over the rest of the term.

It also said the deal would protect work-life balance, ensure job security and attract more workers to the technical operations team.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2024.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2023


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