WestJet is trying to “set the record straight” after some 300 of its pilots in Calgary and up to 800 in Vancouver and Toronto picketed outside of airports on Monday (May 8) as negotiations between the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the airline continue to stall.
In a statement released late Monday, The WestJet Group noted that it was “aware” of the picketing events held by ALPA, the union that represents WestJet mainline and Swoop pilots.
“WestJet respects the rights of our employees to participate in informational picketing, and we continue to listen to our pilots’ concerns,” the airline stated.
Monday’s demonstrations, billed as an “informational picket,” signalled a sign of possible turbulence ahead as WestJet’s pilots will be in a legal position to strike on May 16, just before the Victoria Day long weekend begins.
Pilots are saying they are sick of poor treatment, poor pay and the high turnover rate of staff at WestJet, and while the goal is to avoid a strike, the ALPA says its members are prepared for any outcome.
The union, which represents around 1,600 pilots, voted in favour of a strike mandate in mid-April.
In a press release, it claims that pilots exiting the carrier at a high rate, stating that WestJet is losing “over 30 per month,” which amounts to a pilot leaving the airline “every 18 hours in search of a better work opportunity.”
But WestJet says this isn’t entirely accurate.
At WestJet mainline, “resignations have been relatively low,” the airline said yesterday, noting that it has hired three times more pilots into WestJet mainline this year, than there have been resignations.
“Where WestJet is seeing the greatest pilot attrition is in its regional subsidiary, WestJet Encore,” the airline said. “While Encore is not subject to the current bargaining, it is worth noting that WestJet management is committed to improving career perspective and job security for its valued Encore pilots.”
Getting the story straight
The ALPA is calling on WestJet to adapt what it says is a “realistic understanding” of the market today as it demands an “industry-standard contract.”
“We have been at the negotiating table for eight months. What we need as a pilot group to attract new pilots [and] retain the experienced ones we have, is an industry-standard contract within North America,” Bernard Lewall, WestJet ALPA Master Executive Council (MEC) chair, said at yesterday demonstration, as reported by CityNews.
But WestJet says “there is no such thing as a standard contract that spans a continent in any industry.”
“Contracts need to reflect national labour laws, cost of living, economic environment and geography associated with the country a person is employed in,” the airline said Monday. “A WestJet contract equally needs to reflect the realities in which WestJet operates.”
WestJet added that its mainline pilots are amongst the “best paid pilots in Canada.”
The company also says the ALPA is suggesting that Canadian pilots earn roughly half of what U.S. pilots earn, "which creates an expectation that wages should be doubled as part of a new agreement, to reflect the U.S. industry."
But WestJet says its 737 pilots are amongst the “top Canadian income earners” across all professions.
“To further contrast Canada’s aviation sector, the U.S. aviation sector is supported by tax money and saw strong financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic,” WestJet said.
ALPA’s expectations of wages, if realized, would pose “a significant impact to WestJet’s ability to remain competitive and provide affordable air travel to Canadians,” the airline added.
Alexis von Hoensbroech, CEO of WestJet, said the company is committed to agreeing to a “meaningful contract” before any job action happens, adding he is working “24/7” with the union at the bargaining table.
“Any deal that we agree on also has to safeguard the future of all 15,000 jobs that we have at WestJet,” von Hoensbroech said Monday.
In its company statement Monday, WestJet added that it is “actively negotiating and are unwaveringly committed to achieving an agreement that is competitive within Canada’s airline industry.”
“We believe with a commitment from both parties, an agreement is achievable,” WestJet said.
ALPA is advising consumers that if they have already booked a flight on WestJet Airlines from May 16 onward, they should contact the airline directly to find out about the refund policy should a disruption in flights take place.
“Our goal remains the same as when negotiations began last year—to reach an agreement that provides job security and career progression for our pilots and stability to the airline,” Lewall stated in a news release on Monday.
“The time is now for WestJet management to finally come to the bargaining table and negotiate in good faith with our pilot group.”
Visit westjetpilots.com for ongoing updates.