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Just get over it, WestJet! It's time to negotiate like grownups with your pilots' union

A WestJet aircraft at Las Vegas airport in 2015. Photo: Tomas Del Coro/Wikimedia Commons

Message to WestJet: It's time to negotiate with your pilots like grownups. After all, this is Canada and they've got a constitutional right to bargain collectively, so you need to just get over it. At this point, you'll do more harm to your business by fighting them than you will by making an effort to have a mature business relationship.

The recent call for a strike vote by WestJet pilots, who are trying to negotiate a first collective agreement, tells a sad old story we're quite familiar with here in Alberta. It's a tale of companies that are so unhappy about the perceived slight to them of their employees joining a union they end up harming themselves and their customers.

This is probably not the best metaphor for a story about an airline, but as has often been observed, for the first time apparently by King Solomon, who is reputed to have been quite wise: "Pride goeth before a fall."

Because WestJet is an airline, it falls under federal labour law. But the Calgary-based corporation has been exhibiting signs of the bad, old Alberta labour relations syndrome just the same, even if the rules governing collective bargaining are a little different -- less so now that the provincial NDP government has brought provincial labour laws more in line with the rules in other Canadian jurisdictions.

If WestJet managers take a deep breath and the traditional look in the mirror, they'll realize the way they've been behaving is about showing their employees who's boss, not about treating their flight crews fairly or operating their company in a businesslike way.

After eight hard months at the bargaining table with very little progress to show for it, the pilots represented by the Air Line Pilots Association started taking a strike vote on April 25. Voting continues until May 9, after which federal labour law requires a 21-day cooling off period before a strike can begin.

I imagine the union wasn't very happy about having to take that step to try to bring the employer to its senses. However, according to the CBC report at the time of the strike vote, "negotiators with the company and pilot group held two negotiating sessions where they haven't passed any tentative agreements on any section of the contract, according to the union."

This suggests the company has put some effort into avoiding talking to the international union WestJet's approximately 1,500 pilots voted to join in May 2017. So it was clearly time to do something to break the logjam.

As for the pilots, they vow not to stand there gratefully and take it from a company they helped to build. They will not accept "terms that are substandard compared to our peers," stated Capt. Rob McFadyen, chair of ALPA's WestJet Master Executive Council, on the day they announced the strike vote.

From a business perspective, properly analyzed, this isn't a smart strategy by WestJet -- although I am sure the corporation is looking ahead to the long-term costs of treating its employees properly. The thing is, that's just something you have to shape up and do when you stop being a fun little regional carrier with a couple of rickety old planes and start being a serious international airline, which is what WestJet is now.

Well, there are some hopeful signs WestJet is finally smartening up. I understand that in the wake of the strike vote, the company has agreed to sit down with its pilots for the first time since last fall for at least a couple more weeks of bargaining before the airline launches its new discount carrier, called Swoop.

That's important to both sides, because airlines frequently operate supposedly separate carriers with lower-paid flight crews as a way to cut costs and divide their employees. Business journalists love to heap praise on cheap startups like Swoop, but customers need to remember that they're cheap for a reason, and it's usually done on the backs of employees.

So WestJet has to know the ALPA will be trying to organize Swoop pilots as soon as possible, and if they're paid significantly less that their fellow WestJet employees they may be anxious to sign union cards. And ALPA has to wonder if WestJet might try to use the pilots it is now recruiting abroad for Swoop as strikebreakers in the event of a labour dispute.

ALPA seems to have responded to some of the company's past provocations pretty coolly, which suggests they have an experienced negotiator at the controls.

For its part, WestJet has new leadership, and CEO Ed Sims has been making some of the right noises in media about being committed to getting with the program and negotiating an agreement with the pilots.

That marks a significant change in tone from the previous CEO, Gregg Saretsky, who according to the CBC, vowed to "go down fighting," presumably to avoid having to deal with a union at all. This is a strategy that always sets the stage for problems in a country in which working people have the legal right to bargain collectively.

If there were to be a strike at WestJet -- which presumably no one wants -- the airline might try to move some passengers to other airlines, a strategy that could be complicated by the fact ALPA represents about 60,000 pilots at 34 airlines.

A strike would do serious harm to the goodwill the company has built over the years with travellers, especially in Western Canada. Needless to say, a strike at WestJet would have benefits for the often unfairly maligned Air Canada -- whose pilots have been union members for years.

This isn't the end of union issues for WestJet management, either -- because when the airline's flight attendants see the improvements being part of a union bring for the pilots they fly with, they'll intensify their ongoing efforts to join a union too.

In March, WestJet cabin-crew members revealed that the company pays them less than minimum wage for the hours they work, since they don't get paid when the airplanes are sitting on the ground. This is outrageous, and needs to be fixed immediately.

If WestJet is so anxious to keep unions out of its operations, at least those parts where it doesn't have them already, a good place to start might be by paying its flight attendants for the hours they actually work! The company could call it a goodwill gesture.

Anti-union lobbyists press UCP for Mississippi-style labour laws

Meanwhile, back in Alberta's labour jurisdiction, the usual suspects on the ideological right are lobbying the United Conservative Party to adopt Mississippi-style "right-to-work" laws of dubious constitutionality designed to destroy unions and help widen the already growing Canadian income gap.

The UCP will be considering a resolution to that effect brought forward by former Harper government cabinet minister and Medicine Hat MP Monte Solberg, whose lobbying firm recently ran an anti-union astro-turf campaign, and a couple of constituency associations at this weekend's UCP founding convention.

Now that Alberta's labour laws have been cautiously brought into the mid-20 century by the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley, that would involve an expensive and uncertain court fight paid for by taxpayers for any future conservative government with dreams of moving workplace law in Alberta back to the 19th century.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: Tomas Del Coro/Wikimedia Commons

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