Pilots at WestJet Airlines have voted to go on strike next month as they seek better pay, job protection and working conditions at Canada’s second-largest carrier.
A total of 93 per cent of the votes cast by pilots who fly for WestJet Group, which includes discount brand Swoop, voted for the work stoppage, said Bernard Lewall, a union leader at the Air Line Pilots Association.
The earliest the pilots can strike or be locked out by the employer is May 16, according to labour laws. The ballot’s participation rate was 95 per cent, the union said.
“It’s an indication of just how unified this pilots’ group is,” Mr. Lewall said by phone. “Our pilots are fed up. They want to give [union leaders] a mandate to get management back to the bargaining table and negotiate in good faith.”
The two sides have been in talks since last September, and continue to negotiate daily.
Among the union’s demands is equal pay and work conditions for pilots at WestJet and Swoop. Mr. Lewall said the Swoop pilots fly the same Boeing 737 planes on many of the same routes as their WestJet colleagues, but for less money. The issue becomes more important with WestJet’s takeover of Sunwing Airlines.
In a statement, WestJet said a strike authorization vote is a common part of the bargaining process, and does not mean a strike will occur. “We remain unwaveringly committed to achieving an agreement that is competitive within Canada’s airline industry and ensures we have a long-term sustainable future so that we can continue to operate critical air service for millions of Canadians, while providing jobs for thousands at the WestJet Group,” Diederik Pen, WestJet Group chief operating officer, said in the statement.
Calgary-based WestJet lost 240 pilots last year and another 100 this year, Mr. Lewall said. They are leaving for better pay, working conditions and career certainty, often in the United States. WestJet pilots are paid 45 per cent less than their U.S. counterparts, he said in an interview.
“What our pilots need is a North American standard contract … to retain the pilots we currently have and attract new ones,” Mr. Lewall said.
“We are losing our experienced pilots, we are hiring some pilots, but it’s not replacing the ones that we’re losing, which is frustrating for us,” he said.
Other issues include WestJet’s decision to stop adding Boeing 787s, a larger plane than the 737, on which pilots are paid better. And the airline’s recent move to focus less on Eastern Canada means Toronto-based flight crews are getting fewer flights, Mr. Lewall said.
WestJet controls about 31 per cent of the Canadian domestic market, behind Air Canada at 49 per cent.