A B-737 in Walt Disney World Mickey Mouse livery. (Photo: WestJet Airlines)
With news of COVID-19 vaccine approvals in late 2020, hope was on the horizon for WestJet and its beleaguered workforce after experiencing turmoil, downgrades, and furloughs as a result of the pandemic.
WestJet Master Executive Council (MEC) leaders began preparing for 2021 by identifying their top strategic priority for the pilot group: setting a course to navigate through the pandemic recovery for the pilot group. They accomplished this by focusing on contract enforcement, including securing letters of understanding and memorandums of agreement (MOAs). They prepared for midterm bargaining opportunities surrounding their current MOA 3–Layoff Mitigations due to expire on March 31, and they charted goals for the next collective agreement.
The pilots had already made sacrifices to help the company survive during the pandemic, including agreeing to massive pay cuts. As a result, MEC leaders gave the Negotiating Committee some necessary flexibility in key areas in bargaining for a new MOA that would recognize the pilots’ sacrifices while eliminating the need for additional furloughs.
However, if MOA 3 expired, the pilots’ wages and working conditions would snap back to the original collective agreement and would include 400 layoffs.
The early rounds of discussions were tied to a postpandemic recovery plan with a focus on layoff-mitigation strategies. By the end of February, discussions ended with the company announcing it would open a reduction bid for pilots that would result in approximately 415 surplus pilot positions at WestJet and Swoop (in addition to the 450 pilots who were already furloughed in 2020).
As the MOA 3 expiration deadline approached, a majority of the Local Executive Council (LEC) status representatives agreed that the company’s proposal was inadequate. After careful consideration and debate, the status representatives voted to decline the offer.
Without a deal in place, MOA 3 expired and on April 1 the company put into effect the assignments on the reduction bid, including the 415 pilot layoffs and associated bump downs to WestJet Encore.
Unable to successfully negotiate a new MOA, some LEC status representatives felt the time was right to reevaluate the best way to move forward. The result was a change in both MEC leadership and negotiating strategy with the company going forward. Before leaving his position, Capt. Dave Colquhoun, the outgoing MEC chair, thanked his colleagues for their hard work and wished them the best of luck.
At the ninth regular MEC meeting scheduled in June, the status representatives held elections. Capt. Dave Kingston was elected MEC chair, Capt. Steve Weiher MEC vice chair, and Capt. Bernie Lewall secretary-treasurer.
With a new MEC in place and a number of recently elected LEC status representatives, the pilot group had a renewed sense of optimism that a fresh start would provide the quickest path to stability. As the summer began to wind down and travel demand improved, the airline began to welcome back pilots in increasing numbers to full flying schedules. “As pilots are recalled from furlough and bump down, our pilot numbers continue to grow, and we expect this trend to carry on through 2022,” Kingston noted. The MEC anticipates that all furloughed pilots will be back on property early in 2022.
“For the best chance of success in 2022, the MEC will once again need strong pilot unity and support, as well as significant help from our pilot group volunteers and from ALPA’s dedicated staff,” acknowledged Kingston.
With the pilots’ current collective agreement ending on December 31, the MEC has been hard at work preparing for the upcoming negotiations. “We expect bargaining to begin in mid-2022 for our next collective agreement, and we’ll be fully prepared to negotiate the best possible agreement for our pilots,” Kingston observed.