The union that represents more than 700 baggage service agents, customer service agents and guest service leads at WestJet in Calgary and Vancouver airports has voted to support the bargaining committee and take strike action if a deal cannot be reached.
Unifor’s Scott Doherty, executive assistant to Unifor's National President, said the union is “fighting for better wages.”
"The pay scale has not been increased for more than five years, making WestJet's wages among the lowest in the Canadian aviation industry and no match for soaring inflation. We are looking, not only for a fair deal that's right for our members, but for WestJet to comprehend how much of a pressure-cooker atmosphere it is for them,” Doherty said in a statement on Wednesday (July 20).
Unifor Local 531 voted to strike by 98 per cent, according to a press release.
The local held strike votes July 15 and 16, 2022 in Vancouver and July 18 and 19, 2022 in Calgary and a possible walkout could happen as early as July 27.
Unifor says it has been bargaining for nine months, since October 2021, and spent several weeks during that time with a number of conciliators in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto.
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, even though the workers were not responsible for the company's decisions,” Unifor says.
"We are burnt out," said Sherwin Antonio, member of the Local 531's Calgary Bargaining Committee, in a statement.
"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."
Local 531 filed for conciliation with the Canadian government on April 26, 2022, due to the slow pace and lack of process in bargaining.
The union is in a legal strike position beginning July 27, 2022. Prior to taking any strike action, Unifor must serve WestJet with 72 hours' notice of its intention to strike.
Shortly after Unifor’s announcement went out, WestJet issued a statement regarding the results of the strike authorization vote.
“This is a common step in the labour negotiation process and was not unexpected,” stated Angela Avery, executive vice-president and chief people, corporate and sustainability officer.
“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.”
WestJet said it is “committed to competitive compensation” that recognize airport employee contributions, while ensuring the airline is positioned to return to profitability.
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, the airline said.
“As Canadians make their highly anticipated return to travel this summer, the airline is working on precautionary contingency plans, and has identified employees who may be reassigned if required,” WestJet wrote. “This preventative measure is in place to ensure critical air service continuity from coast-to-coast and to protect the fragile recovery of Canada’s travel and tourism industry.”
WestJet noted that it has “meticulously planned” for summer flights and has maintained a 97.5 per cent completion factor, the company said.
The airline said it continues to work with the federal government, third-party providers and airport partners to mitigate operational challenges that remain outside of WestJet’s control “in this challenging recovery landscape.”