WestJet pilots to launch strike authorization vote as negotiations fizzle
MONTREAL — The union representing WestJet pilots will launch a strike authorization vote Monday as contract talks with management drag on, the Air Line Pilots Association said Friday.
Bernard Lewall, who heads ALPA Canada's WestJet contingent, said its 1,600-person membership is "frustrated" after six months of bargaining with a company he claims has failed to seriously engage with it.
The issues revolve around wages, scheduling and work conditions at WestJet and its discount subsidiary Swoop, with 39 pilots opting to leave for other airlines in the past month alone, Lewall said in a phone interview from Calgary.
"WestJet used to be a place where young pilots wanted to come and work. That’s not the case anymore. It’s not just more experienced pilots that are leaving; you have new pilots looking at other places to fly too," he said, ahead of a union demonstration at WestJet headquarters at the Calgary airport.
"We want to show that the company has to treat its pilots better."
WestJet said the threat of a strike is a "common and expected tactic" in the negotiation process.
"However, that does not mean a strike will occur. WestJet is committed to this process and will continue to work with ALPA to reach a collective agreement that provides value to our current and future pilots, is sustainable for the company and avoids disruption to our guests," spokeswoman Madison Kruger said in an email.
Lewall said their wages remain well below the North American industry standard. Meanwhile, pilots are being asked to spend more time away from home. "We're already away from our families half the month."
If successful, the 15-day authorization vote would set the stage for the bargaining team to call a strike following a three-week "cooling-off period," which in turn would begin after the ongoing federal conciliation process wraps up April 24.
That means the union could go on strike or lockout by the May long weekend, which traditionally kicks off the summer travel season.
The strike mandate vote comes amid a severe pilot shortage as airlines struggle to shore up bottom lines badly dented by the pandemic.
One stumbling block is "equal pay for equal work," said Lewall.
Currently, pilots who fly under the Swoop banner are paid less than those who fly for WestJet. With the company's takeover of leisure carrier Sunwing approved by the federal government on March 10, Lewall said the union is worried it could lead to the creation of yet another class of pilots with a different pay scale.
"We could find ourselves in a place where there would be three airlines basically within WestJet who are all operating the same aircraft for different wages and with different conditions," he said.
Proposed last March, the Sunwing acquisition will see Calgary-based WestJet bolster its vacation package offerings as it adds the tour operator to its fleet, though the two brands will be marketed separately.
Poised for completion in the next few weeks, the takeover marks a major consolidation of the Canadian aviation market following a tumultuous year for travel.
WestJet pilots first unionized in May 2017, signalling 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 last year, was the result of an arbitrated settlement reached in 2018. That deal averted a threatened strike, as WestJet pilots had voted in favour of job action after contract talks fell apart.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press