CALGARY — Just as travel is starting to take off, and after two years of pandemic disruptions for the airline industry, WestJet is now dealing with a potential strike situation by its airport employees at Calgary and Vancouver airports.
According to Unifor, WestJet workers in Calgary and Vancouver have voted “overwhelmingly” to support the bargaining committee and take strike action if a deal cannot be reached. The union is in a legal strike position as of July 27, with a required 72 hours’ notice of strike intention.
Unifor says bargaining has been underway for nine months, since October 2021. Unifor Local 531 – which represents 700+ baggage service agents, customer service agents and guest service leads, among others, in Calgary and Vancouver airports – voted to strike by 98%.
Union leaders note that since air travel began picking up in the spring, WestJet workers have endured verbal abuse and, at times, physical threats from travellers whose flights were delayed or cancelled.
“We are burnt out,” says Sherwin Antonio, member of the Local 531’s Calgary Bargaining Committee. ”This is the perfect storm of massive worker shortages, lost baggage and flight chaos. The people who get the brunt of the anger aren’t the people in the boardroom, but us. We have been telling the company for months, we need more support. And we need it now.”
WestJet issued its own statement today in the wake of Unifor’s strike authorization announcement.
“This is a common step in the labour negotiation process and was not unexpected. We remain focused on successfully negotiating an agreement that provides value to our airport employees, many of whom have joined WestJet in the last year. In the meantime, we will continue to provide our guests with the friendly and affordable air travel WestJet has always been known for,” said Angela Avery, WestJet’s Executive Vice-President and Chief People, Corporate and Sustainability Officer.
WestJet added that it’s committed to competitive compensation that recognizes airport employee contributions, while ensuring the airline is positioned to return to profitability, following more than two years of unprecedented financial losses resulting from the pandemic.
The company notes that “as the airline rebuilds, the majority of its airport employees have been with the company for less than one year, and the vast majority of more tenured airport employees have received increases through the existing pay step structure, in addition to a Canadian industry leading variable compensation.”
WestJet also says it has “meticulously planned” for summer operations and through proactive efforts to stabilize operations and since the beginning of July leads Canadian operators with a 97.5% completion factor.
The airline says it continues to work closely with the federal government, third-party providers and airport partners to mitigate operational challenges including severe congestion and delays at Canada’s biggest airports in recent months.