More WestJet flight cancellations as strike hits tens of thousands of travellers

More WestJet flight cancellations as strike hits tens of thousands of travellers
Photo credit: Nicholas Pescod

WestJet has cancelled nearly 700 flights, upending plans for close to 100,000 passengers as an unexpected strike by plane mechanics entered its third day Sunday on the busiest travel weekend of the season.

The 680-odd workers, whose daily inspections and repairs are essential to airline operations, walked off the job on Friday evening despite a directive for binding arbitration from the federal labour minister.

Since Thursday, tracking service FlightAware shows WestJet has cancelled 687 flights scheduled to fly between then and the end of the Canada Day long weekend.

As of Sunday morning, 77 per cent of the day’s trips had been called off, with WestJet topping the global list for cancellations among major airlines Saturday and Sunday.

Both the airline and the Airplane Mechanics Fraternal Association have accused the other side of refusing to negotiate in good faith.

WestJet Airlines president Diederik Pen has stressed what he calls the “continued reckless actions” of a union that was making “blatant efforts” to disrupt Canadians’ travel plans, while the union claimed the Calgary-based company has refused to respond to its latest counterproposal. In an update to members Sunday, it said members were “the victim of WestJet’s virulent PR campaign that you are scofflaws,” citing “calumnies” against workers around their right to strike.

SATURDAY STORY: WestJet cancels hundreds of flights following surprise mechanics union strike

The job action comes after union members voted overwhelmingly to reject a tentative deal from WestJet earlier this month and following two weeks of tense negotiations between the two parties.

As the clock ticked down toward a Friday strike deadline, the impasse prompted Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan to step in, mandating that WestJet and the union undertake binding arbitration headed by the country’s labour tribunal.

That process typically sidesteps a work stoppage. WestJet certainly thought so, stating the union had “confirmed they will abide by the direction.”

“Given this, a strike or lockout will not occur, and the airline will no longer proceed in cancelling flights,” the airline said Thursday.

The mechanics took a different view. The union negotiating committee said it would “comply with the minister’s order and directs its members to refrain from any unlawful job action.” Fewer than 24 hours later, workers were on the picket line.

A decision from the Canada Industrial Relations Board on Thursday seemed to affirm the legality of their actions, regardless of typical protocols around arbitration.

“The board finds that the ministerial referral does not have the effect of suspending the right to strike or lockout,” the tribunal wrote.

The labour minister said Saturday that the board’s ruling was “clearly inconsistent” with the direction he provided, but O’Regan later added that he respected the body’s independence.

Both parties were set to meet Sunday morning, the union said.

Not everyone was vexed by the weekend’s labour turbulence.

“We are seeing a huge surge in bookings, presumably from passengers scrambling to save their long weekends,” said Flair Airlines spokeswoman Kim Bowie.

By Christopher Reynolds

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2024.

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