Last week, on the eve of a long weekend, WestJet and Swoop pilots secured a tentative agreement, subject to member ratification, that averted a strike. WestJet management was initially ready to go to war with its pilots, going so far as to threaten and prepare for a lockout. Then the chest-thumping gave way to the reality that management was in an untenable position, and now it’s all smiles and backslapping after workers stood firm.
The four-year contract includes improvements in take-home pay to the tune of CAD$400 million, retroactive payment to January, the option of a pension, and a handful of other quality-of-life improvements. It’s a big win for workers in a tough industry who are proving once more that labor action delivers results.
As Captain Bernie Lewall, WestJet pilot and chair of the Master Executive Council said on the council’s podcast, “All our talking points have been about making WestJet a career airline.” Prior to the agreement in principle, WestJet pilots were paid toward the lower end of the North American average. The new deal will bump them up considerably and, importantly, remedy the company’s conspicuously absent pension option.
WestJet was bought by private equity company Onex in 2019 in a $5 billion deal. At the time, then mayor of Calgary Naheed Nenshi said, “Private equity firms buy companies for one of three reasons: cut costs, grow the business, or restructure the industry. Which is it?” The company was struggling at the time and had battled their employees off and on. This conflict ratcheted up when the company’s flight attendants began organizing in 2018.
Airline pilots across North America are in the midst of a labor-rights push. Last week, FedEx pilots voted in favor of a strike as they agitate for higher pay. Seizing this particular moment is good strategy for organizers. As Reuters reports, “With aviators in short supply and air travel demand booming, pilots are enjoying enhanced bargaining power, encouraging them to push for better contracts with airlines and parcel firms.” Around the same time, American Airlines pilots reached their own four-year agreement in principle, just after Delta Air Lines workers did the same. The Globe and Mail reports that the two deals are comparable. In May, Southwest pilots also voted for a strike mandate, and Air Canada workers are currently pushing for their own better deal.
The airline industry is notorious for its poor treatment of workers. Last summer marked an all-time low, largely influenced by the pandemic, although the underlying issues had been brewing for quite some time. At the time, workers were quitting en masse amid delays, cancellations, lost baggage, plus widespread disrespect, fatigue, and illness.
Management was nowhere to be found across the industry, particularly in Canada. And all of this was playing out against the backdrop of a generational shift across sectors. Now airlines are struggling to catch up to changes, including new hires. Indeed, in January, a pilot shortage was named as a major contributor to travel chaos. It ought to surprise no one, then, that labor is taking this opportunity to catch up after years of neglect.
Lewall’s comment that “all our talking points have been about making WestJet a career airline” is important. It echoes a common theme in labor bargaining — workers aren’t just after more cash. They want respect, safe working conditions, stability, and a future within which they can feel secure.
Labor battles often revolve around safeguarding careers, not simply short-term improvements. They encompass medium- to long-term aspirations that contribute to stable employment. Viewing the WestJet labor dispute through the lens of these sorts of long-term calculations, it’s no surprise, given the paltriness of its employee offerings, that the air carrier has been having a pilot retention problem. Similarly, it comes as no surprise that Southwest Airlines has been having its own issues with retention, which contributed to the utter catastrophe that was holiday flights last winter.
Both labor and management across industries ought to take notes and lessons from the struggle for better deals for airline pilots. Labor is having a moment in both the private and public sectors across North America, and it is seizing it. At the heart of the battles at play are structural market changes, shifting attitudes and expectations, and new standards. One of the virtues of collective bargaining is that a win by one union or group of unions may set a precedent for others — one good deal helps pave the way for the next good deal.
In a competitive labor market, such as the one the airline industry faces, workers have the opportunity to enhance their bargaining power and negotiate improved terms with their employers. It is crucial for workers to seize this moment. At a minimum, management should acknowledge that workers deserve and desire fair compensation. But there’s more to it than that. They also want respect and stability, even if some workers put a premium on job flexibility. Retaining workers requires, for instance, a fair pension, just as protecting them requires safe working conditions.
You’d think all of this would be obvious, even automatic, but of course it’s not. Maintaining and extending labor rights and fair pay is a perpetual struggle in which management and owners are on one side and workers on another. That doesn’t mean that the two sides can’t find a way to coexist, but it does mean that they are always going to be in an antagonistic relationship. As long as there is a class divide between those who labor and those who set the rules and conditions under which that labor is done, struggles like those affecting the airline industry are inevitable. The recent wins do at least remind us once more that better deals are always possible — if you’re prepared to fight for it and to collectively withhold your labor in the process.