WestJet strike averted after federal labour minister imposes binding arbitration

A strike by WestJet mechanics has been averted after federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan directed the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to impose final binding arbitration to resolve the outstanding issues of the collective agreement between the airline and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA).

In a statement Thursday, O’Regan said he is “using his authorities under the Canada Labour Code” to resolve the outstanding terms of the collective agreeement.

He previously referred WestJet and the AMFA to the CIRB on June 18, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.

“The parties still remain far apart today, and tensions have only increased since last Tuesday,” the statement reads. “It is my firm belief that a strong collective bargaining relationship can be built.”

In a statement Thursday, AMFA said there is no modern precedent for the minister’s action. However, the union said it will comply with the order and directed its members to avoid any unlawful job action.

Averted strike already caused disruptions

A potential strike by WestJet airplane mechanics had threatened to upend travel plans for 250,000 customers over the Canada Day long weekend, according to the airline.

The Calgary-based carrier had already begun to cancel flights, calling off roughly 25 trips on Thursday and Friday in anticipation of possible job action by AMFA, which had threatened to hit the picket lines as early as 5:30 p.m. MT on Friday.

In response to O’Regan’s statement, WestJet issued a press release Thursday afternoon saying no additional flights will be cancelled.

“With the government’s actions, the summer travel plans of Canadians have been protected and we have a path to resolution,” said the airline’s president Diederik Pen.

The decision to cancel flights this week had already caused issues for some travellers.

“They off-loaded the plane last night, [in Calgary], took all the bags, put them on the planes they’re supposed to go on, so there’s no reason we couldn’t have gone on our flight,” said Claude Slade, a rotational worker who travels across the country for his job.

Slade was on a three-week rotation and had flights booked to go back home to Newfoundland from Victoria on Wednesday with a connection through Calgary — where he ended up stranded because of the impacts of the potential strike.

“My bag right now is in St. John’s. I got a notification at … 3:30 a.m., Calgary time, saying my bag was there,” he said.

A man wearing glasses and a hoodie is pictured speaking in front of a camera.
Claude Slade had to spend the night in Calgary after confusion over his flight and travel plans because of a potential strike by WestJet mechanics. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Prior to O’Regan’s directive, the tone of statements put out by the union and the airline had grown increasingly aggressive.

The mechanics union, which represents about 680 workers — the majority are aircraft maintenance engineers who inspect each active plane daily — had accused WestJet of “brinksmanship” and “false accusations.”

It said Wednesday the airline asked the government to quash its strike notice without notifying its negotiators.

WestJet deemed the impact of a potential strike “catastrophic.”

Pen called the decision to trigger flight cancellations a “painful” one, noting the fallout for customers.

Plane mechanics first served the carrier with a 72-hour strike notice on June 17, prompting WestJet to cancel nearly 50 flights last week before both sides agreed to resume negotiations. The second strike notice came Tuesday.

Union members voted overwhelmingly to reject a tentative deal earlier this month and have opposed WestJet’s request for intervention by the country’s labour tribunal.

The Canada Industrial Relations Board has said it needs more time and submissions from each party before deciding whether to create a collective agreement via binding arbitration, as proposed by WestJet last week.