Canadian Airline Mechanics’ Defiant Strike Has Paid Off

Against orders from Justin Trudeau’s government, WestJet mechanics went on strike. Their actions secured substantial wage gains and a resounding victory for workers’ rights.

WestJet mechanics went on strike last weekend and won. (David Kawai / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In a surprise move over the Canada Day long weekend, WestJet mechanics went on strike on Friday, June 28. This came on the heels of federal minister of labor Seamus O’Regan’s ordering of binding arbitration on June 27, after WestJet made the request to the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB). While O’Regan’s order is within his right as labor minister, the CIRB has twice ruled that such a referral does not suspend the right to strike. On June 20, the board also rejected WestJet’s application for an injunction to prevent any possible strike action.

Members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) voted overwhelmingly for strike action on May 9, with 99 percent in favor and a 90 percent turnout. On June 11, they decisively rejected WestJet’s offer, prompting the latest round of negotiations before the arbitration order. For the aircraft maintenance engineers (AMEs) at WestJet, pay remains a major point of contention. These negotiations are for the AMEs’ first contract, as they voted to join AMFA in early 2023 and have already filed unfair labor practice complaints against the company during negotiations.

The Right to Strike

O’Regan’s decision to send the dispute to arbitration is controversial. New Democratic Party (NDP) labor critic Matthew Green released a statement criticizing the decision, noting that arbitration has only been used for federally regulated labor disputes seven times in the past forty-five years. In light of a 2015 Supreme Court decision recognizing the right to strike, this forced arbitration could be a violation of collective bargaining rights. Ironically, just days ago, the government enacted a ban on the use of replacement workers during strikes and lockouts in federally regulated industries, with a press release stating, “The Government of Canada believes in free and fair collective bargaining.”

By the night of June 30, the strike was over. However, 832 flights were canceled and one hundred thousand passengers’ travel was affected before a tentative five-year agreement was reached. The deal included an immediate 15.5 percent wage increase, followed by increases of 3.25 percent in the second year and 2.5 percent per year in the last three years. Direct action got the goods.

The strike was a simple but impressive display of worker power. The union had a strong strike mandate from its members and chose to strike on a long weekend to maximize economic disruption. Due to the skilled nature of the AMEs’ work, they could not easily be replaced by other WestJet employees or managers. In short, they had significant associational and structural power to force the employer to settle.

Federal Interference Is No Surprise

The federal government’s intervention in the labor dispute is hardly unprecedented. Both the federal and provincial governments are notorious for using back-to-work legislation to end strikes and lockouts. This practice began with attempts in the late 1970s and 1980s by Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, to keep inflation under control. While governments claimed this legislation was exceptional and implemented because of the inflation crisis, they nevertheless continued using it for decades. Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz termed this practice “permanent exceptionalism.”

What is particularly troubling is that this instance involves a private sector employer. Interfering in public sector bargaining is bad enough, but historically the private sector has been left alone. This changed when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government repeatedly threatened or passed back-to-work legislation targeting workers at Air Canada and the CN and CP railways, citing economic rationales. When the government signals it will intervene in the private sector, it is an ominous sign for labor relations more broadly.

Justin Trudeau’s government has also followed this trend. In 2018, it used back-to-work legislation to end a strike among postal workers. This marked a significant shift in the government’s relationships with organized labor, a constituency it had sought win over during the 2015 election.

When O’Regan was appointed labor minister in 2021, it seemed to indicate a more conciliatory, if not progressive, approach from the government. In 2023, O’Regan refrained from unfairly intervening in several high-profile strikes, including those among federal public sector workers, West Coast port workers, and St Lawrence Seaway workers. These were strikes that had significant economic impact.

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was widespread support for workers and unions, not only to catch salaries up to inflation but for a better deal in the workplace overall. Just six months ago, O’Regan told the Globe and Mail: “Sometimes people look to government to interfere, to make things happen more quickly, or in a way that would be more favorable to them. Invariably, my response is to sit at the table, do the work. Government shouldn’t be involved in this.”

The Politics of the Thing

It appears that this potentially illegal government interference could be a move driven by political opportunism. Trudeau and his party are tanking in the polls, and there are Liberal members of parliament who are seemingly plotting to push him out. In this context, there is a very real possibility of the government shifting to the right. For example, Anita Anand, touted as a possible Trudeau replacement, has been burnishing her credentials as a budget hawk in her position as Treasury board president. This can be contrasted with the strategy of the Conservative Party, which recently voted for the replacement-worker ban in an effort to reach out to unionized workers.

With the Liberals taking a beating in the polls, Canada’s four million union members are becoming a key constituency up for grabs between the Conservatives and the NDP, traditionally seen as the party aligned with labor interests.

With Liberals possibly lurching to the right, the Conservatives courting union votes for political gain, and the NDP still a distant third in the polls, the outlook for the working class in Canada seems increasingly uncertain. However, the actions taken by AMFA — going on strike despite government efforts to prevent it and securing wage gains — demonstrate that resistance to government interference is possible. This stands as a message that the working class does not have to rely on the goodwill of politicians to win.