The vote is in, and WestJet and Swoop pilots have voted almost unanimously to take job action should negotiations with the airline fail to come up with a deal.
The pilots, represented by Air Line Pilots Association International, have set a deadline for May 16 to come to an agreement with WestJet before job action is undertaken. Of the 95 per cent of pilots that voted, 93 per cent voted in favour of taking job action.
At issue for the members is comparable pay to the North American pilot average, scheduling concerns, and working conditions.
“On average, every 18 hours a WestJet Group pilot turns in their wings for a better career,” said Captain Bernard Lewall, chair of the ALPA WestJet Master Executive Council.
In 2022, he said, 240 pilots left the airline, and a little over 100 thus far in 2023, said Capt. Lewall.
“We need to get back to that industry-standard North American contract to make WestJet a career destination again, that pilots want to stay at, experienced pilots want to stay at, and the novice pilots who want to join,” he said.
Lewall said that the result of pilots leaving the airline has meant adding stress to staff and reduced flights for passengers.
Pilots want to avoid a strike
That pay difference is about 50 per cent less for Canadian pilots versus those in the U.S. That gap was something they are trying to close, Lewall said.
“We get that the gap is not going to close totally. But it does have to start,” he said.
Capt. Lewall said that he had hoped that an information picket held outside of WestJet’s headquarters in Calgary last month, along with the unity of the strike vote, would convince the airline to come to an agreement.
“An agreement that will provide job security and career progression for our pilots and, most importantly, stability to the airline and our passengers,” he said.
The association said in a release to the media following the vote outcome that they were prepared to undertake legal job action.
ALPA’s executive board unanimously approved a $2 million USD grant, should job action be undertaken by the union.
“The association does not want to engage in work action, we do not want to get go on strike, and we do not want to be locked out,” said Lewall.
“We’re hoping that that message resonates with the company and they come back to the negotiating table with a renewed vigor—one where they will surely negotiate with us for what we need for that North American standard contract.”
WestJet says they remain committed to making a deal happen
In a statement provided to the media on April 18, WestJet Group Chief Operating Officer Diederik Pen said that the airline remains committed to making a competitive deal with the pilots.
“We remain unwaveringly committed to achieving an agreement that is competitive within Canada’s airline industry and ensures we have a long-term sustainable future so that we can continue to operate critical air service for millions of Canadians while providing jobs for thousands at the WestJet Group,” the statement read.
Pen previously said on March 31, when speaking to LWC, that the airline was looking at competitive wages within the nation for pilots in response to WestJet ALPA members looking for parity with their American counterparts.
“We are willing to pay competitive Canadian rates, and that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
Pen downplayed the possibility of a strike occurring, saying in the statement that the vote was a normal part of labour negotiations.
“A strike authorization vote is a common step by unions in context of the overall labour negotiation process and does not mean a strike will occur.”
Capt. Lewell said that he was recently encouraged by statements from WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce about the growth of the company.
“As pilots, we want to be a part of that growth story, and we actually are very encouraged to hear those words, but it cannot be a growth story as long as we are losing more pilots than we’re hiring,” Lewall said.