A WestJet aircraft lands at Las Vegas in 2015 (Photo: Tomas Del Coro, Creative Commons).

Message to WestJet: It’s time to negotiate with your pilots like grownups. After all, this is Canada and they’ve got a constitutional right to bargain collectively, so you need to just get over it. At this point, you’ll do more harm to your business by fighting them than you will by making an effort to have a mature business relationship.

The recent call for a strike vote by WestJet pilots, who are trying to negotiate a first collective agreement, tells a sad old story we’re quite familiar with here in Alberta. It’s a tale of companies that are so unhappy about the perceived slight to them of their employees joining a union they end up harming themselves and their customers.

WestJet CEO Ed Sims (Photo: WestJet).

This is probably not the best metaphor for a story about an airline, but as has often been observed, for the first time apparently by King Solomon, who is reputed to have been quite wise: “Pride goeth before a fall.”

Because WestJet is an airline, it falls under federal labour law. But the Calgary-based corporation has been exhibiting signs of the bad, old Alberta labour relations syndrome just the same, even if the rules governing collective bargaining are a little different – less so now that the provincial NDP government has brought provincial labour laws more in line with the rules in other Canadian jurisdictions.

If WestJet managers take a deep breath and the traditional look in the mirror, they’ll realize the way they’ve been behaving is about showing their employees who’s boss, not about treating their flight crews fairly or operating their company in a businesslike way.

After eight hard months at the bargaining table with very little progress to show for it, the pilots represented by the Air Line Pilots Association started taking a strike vote on April 25. Voting continues until May 9, after which federal labour law requires a 21-day cooling off period before a strike can begin.

I imagine the union wasn’t very happy about having to take that step to try to bring the employer to its senses. However, according to the CBC report at the time of the strike vote, “negotiators with the company and pilot group held two negotiating sessions where they haven’t passed any tentative agreements on any section of the contract, according to the union.”

ALPA WestJet unit chair Rob McFadyen (Photo: ALPA).

This suggests the company has put some effort into avoiding talking to the international union WestJet’s approximately 1,500 pilots voted to join in May 2017. So it was clearly time to do something to break the logjam.

As for the pilots, they vow not to stand there gratefully and take it from a company they helped to build. They will not accept “terms that are substandard compared to our peers,” stated Capt. Rob McFadyen, chair of ALPA’s WestJet Master Executive Council, on the day they announced the strike vote.

From a business perspective, properly analyzed, this isn’t a smart strategy by WestJet – although I am sure the corporation is looking ahead to the long-term costs of treating its employees properly. The thing is, that’s just something you have to shape up and do when you stop being a fun little regional carrier with a couple of rickety old planes and start being a serious international airline, which is what WestJet is now.

Well, there are some hopeful signs WestJet is finally smartening up. I understand that in the wake of the strike vote, the company has agreed to sit down with its pilots for the first time since last fall for at least a couple more weeks of bargaining before the airline launches its new discount carrier, called Swoop.

That’s important to both sides, because airlines frequently operate supposedly separate carriers with lower paid flight crews as a way to cut costs and divide their employees. Business journalists love to heap praise on cheap startups like Swoop, but customers need to remember that they’re cheap for a reason, and it’s usually done on the backs of employees.

So WestJet has to know the ALPA will be trying to organize Swoop pilots as soon as possible, and if they’re paid significantly less that their fellow WestJet employees they may be anxious to sign union cards. And ALPA has to wonder if WestJet might try to use the pilots it is now recruiting abroad for Swoop as strikebreakers in the event of a labour dispute.

ALPA seems to have responded to some of the company’s past provocations pretty coolly, which suggests they have an experienced negotiator at the controls.

For its part, WestJet has new leadership, and CEO Ed Sims has been making some of the right noises in media about being committed to getting with the program and negotiating an agreement with the pilots.

That marks a significant change in tone from the previous CEO, Gregg Saretsky, who according to the CBC, vowed to “go down fighting,” presumably to avoid having to deal with a union at all. This is a strategy that always sets the stage for problems in a country in which working people have the legal right to bargain collectively.

If there were to be a strike at WestJet – which presumably no one wants – the airline might try to move some passengers to other airlines, a strategy that could be complicated by the fact ALPA represents about 60,000 pilots at 34 airlines.

A strike would do serious harm to the goodwill the company has built over the years with travellers, especially in Western Canada. Needless to say, a strike at WestJet would have benefits for the often unfairly maligned Air Canada – whose pilots have been union members for years.

This isn’t the end of union issues for WestJet management, either – because when the airline’s flight attendants see the improvements being part of a union bring for the pilots they fly with, they’ll intensify their ongoing efforts to join a union too.

In March, WestJet cabin-crew members revealed that the company pays them less than minimum wage for the hours they work, since they don’t get paid when the airplanes are sitting on the ground. This is outrageous, and needs to be fixed immediately.

If WestJet is so anxious to keep unions out of its operations, at least those parts where it doesn’t have them already, a good place to start might be by paying its flight attendants for the hours they actually work! The company could call it a goodwill gesture.

Anti-union lobbyists press UCP for Mississippi-style labour laws

Meanwhile, back in Alberta’s labour jurisdiction, the usual suspects on the ideological right are lobbying the United Conservative Party to adopt Mississippi-style “right-to-work” laws of dubious constitutionality designed to destroy unions and help widen the already growing Canadian income gap.

The UCP will be considering a resolution to that effect brought forward by former Harper Government cabinet minister and Medicine Hat MP Monte Solberg, whose lobbying firm recently ran an anti-union astro-turf campaign, and a couple of constituency associations at this weekend’s UCP founding convention.

Now that Alberta’s labour laws have been cautiously brought into the mid-20th Century by the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley, that would involve an expensive and uncertain court fight paid for by taxpayers for any future conservative government with dreams of moving workplace law in Alberta back to the 19th Century.

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  1. Sad to read that Westjet is apparently recruiting pilots overseas for Swoop. As a summer student working at the National Research Council in Ottawa in 1968, I worked with a technician who had only just got a job there – he was a legal landed immigrant, but despite sterling qualifications it had taken him four years to get a position, because the Feds and the union had to be certain there wasn’t a qualified bona fide Canadian somewhere in this fair land who could do the job. That’s how strict things used to be. It was actually worse than I describe, but too complicated to relate here. The gist remains. A legal landed immigrant should not be treated in such a manner – they have skin in the game too.

    The corporate world has swept aside such moralizng in the intervening years. Temporary foreign workers are the norm particularly in the IT world, working for less and causing Canadian citizens to train their replacements before flinging them out onto the corporate garbage dump. So one hopes that Westjet is forced by law to search for actual Canadians or legal landed immigrants for pilots before foreigners are recruited. Otherwise what in hell is the point in being a Canadian in Canada?

    The US is even worse with its corrupt H1B visa system, and dear old Mike Pence, no doubt a god-fearing man, led the charge as Indiana governor to counter a suit to overturn Indiana’s right-to-work status. Cain’t have those unions running counter to business policy, no sirree.

    Sounds amazing that a bright but miseducated prairie boy like Kenney (and his ilk), drowning in Conservative drivel, can in 2018 attempt to ruin the society we have built and roll back egalitarianisms to claps of corporate approbation and reanimation of ancient church dogma. It’s a top down class-driven move to get the proles to tug their forelocks to their wealthy betters, work for bugger all and be deliriously happy to serve. What’s even more amazing to me is that normal citizens apparently think or have been brainwashed into believing that this is wonderful and logical – we don’t need no stinkin’ unions. Well, they’re coming for you next, then see how you feel.

    Tommy Douglas started out in the prairies. If he were around today and saw the attitudes prevalent, no doubt he’d retreat to a log cabin to wonder, how did these dolts come to the exact opposite thinking they once held, offering themselves as juicy willing morsels for the corporate maw. And lovin’ it!

    Great columns recently, Mr Climenhaga. I was an engineer for my working career, but found that personal greed nearly always overruled logic among many of my peers. Monetary compensation is the dangling carrot that corporate used to make people see things their way. So I guess we can safely assume that people are not really moral if they see personal advantage, but fail to note that like winning the lottery, only a few benefit and “make it”.

  2. There is an old saying that is still true today.

    Employers often get the union that they deserve.

  3. Unfortunately this type of bad-faith negotiating has been going on all over the world for years. I’m a captain at a US airline and we’ve been at it for 2 ½ years. The more they delay, the more short term money they save. If companies treated their employees fairly there would be no need for unions.

  4. Good job Bill, I could not have said it better myself but you articulated my thoughts

  5. Well said and a very thorough analysis of the situation. Unfortunately, as long as Clive Beddoe is Chairman of the Board, he will continue to put pressure on the management team to maintain his version of status quo – even if it has long since passed on. He truly believes it’s still the little engine that could from the 90’s.

    1. Part of WJ’s business model when it first hit the skies was borrowed from the US discount carrier, Southwest: stick to one type of aircraft to cut down on maintenance costs and limit inventories of replacement parts. So, it flew nothing but Boeing 737s for most of its history. But more recently, with the creation of WestJet Encore (Bombardier Q-400s), and their recent acquisitions of secondhand Boeing 767s and now even Boeing 787 Dreamliner for their new overseas long-haul flights, that strategy is now in history’s dustbin.

      As a fairly frequent flier of late, I still tend to prefer flying WJ over Air Canada, if only because their cabin crews are human beings and not Stepfordized robots. They joke around, they have a little bit of fun with the stultifying safety briefings, and generally seem to enjoy their jobs more than AC crews.

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