Canada's WestJet cancels more flights after failing to reach agreement with union

By Allison Lampert

(Reuters) -Canada's WestJet Airlines said late on Saturday that it has canceled a total of 407 flights affecting over 49,000 passengers after the carrier and the union representing its striking mechanics failed to reach an agreement.

WestJet said it will continue parking aircraft throughout the remainder of the evening and Sunday to safely reduce its operating fleet to about 30 aircraft by Sunday evening.

Canadian Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan earlier in the day urged WestJet and the union to resolve their differences and reach an agreement.

Seeking to preemptively avert a strike by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) union's roughly 680 WestJet members, O'Regan had asked the board to resolve the contract dispute through binding arbitration.

While the board on Friday ordered the contract to be finalized through arbitration, it added that O'Regan's referral "does not have the effect of suspending the right to strike or lockout."

O'Regan said on social media site X that he respects the authority of the Canada Industrial Relations Board, which is independent of the government, after reviewing the body's decision earlier on Saturday.

"I told them (WestJet and AMFA) they needed to work together with the Canada Industrial Relations Board to resolve their differences and get their first agreement done," O'Regan said after the meeting on Saturday evening.

Unions in North America have capitalized on tight labor markets to win hefty contracts at the bargaining table, with mainline pilots, autoworkers and others scoring big raises in 2023.

WestJet said the carrier was scheduled to fly more than 250,000 passengers over the four days across Canada's July 1 long weekend.

WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said AMFA was refusing to negotiate and called the strike "a very disruptive thing, basically done by a rogue U.S. union that is trying to make inroads in Canada.

"Their only purpose was to disrupt as many Canadian travelers as possible," he noted.

On social media, WestJet travelers complained about being stranded or having long-planned family vacations canceled.

WestJet said it has offered a 12.5% wage increase in the first year of the agreement, and a compounded wage increase of 23% over the term of the agreement.

Ian Evershed, an airline representative with AMFA, said von Hoensbroech's comments were disappointing and argued that it was WestJet that was refusing to negotiate.

Evershed said WestJet repeatedly delayed returning to the table after the union made its last offer on Wednesday night. Instead, the minister referred the union to binding arbitration.

"We have been abandoned by the company at the negotiating table," Evershed said. "Obviously we don't feel that's the best outcome for us. We prefer to continue bargaining."

Evershed said the mechanics are striking because it puts them in a position to try and force the company into negotiations. He thanked O'Regan for "maintaining integrity" in a decision which upholds workers' right to strike.

The union served strike notices to WestJet after 97% of its members voted to reject a tentative pay deal reached in May.

(Reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal and Lucia Mutikani; Additional reporting by Akanksha Khushi and Mrinmay Dey in Bengaluru; Editing by Richard Chang and Christopher Cushing)