WestJet Airlines' first-ever round of union negotiations hit some turbulence after the association that represents pilots applied for government intervention in contract talks — and even filed a complaint against the company.
The Air Line Pilots Association says contract talks with WestJet began in September, but both sides remain far apart on many important issues, such as job protections and working conditions for pilots.
"Negotiations are going quite poorly," said Rob McFadyen, a member of the pilot association's executive council.
The union has applied for federal government conciliators to help both sides reach an agreement.
Airline not used to union talks
The association has also filed a complaint with the Canada Industrial Relations Board over WestJet's alleged tactics of hiring pilots for Swoop, its new ultra-low-cost carrier expected to launch in June.
"It's not a surprise that negotiations are not necessarily going smoothly for the pilots at WestJet," said David Camfield, an associate professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba.
"This is a company that's not used to dealing with its workers having a collective voice through a union."
McFadyen claimed WestJet is recruiting captains to work for lower pay and fly the same routes as existing pilots. He said the complaint alleges the airline is offering current WestJet pilots unusually long leaves of absence to fly for Swoop, a separate operation that isn't unionized.
"They are directly negotiating with the pilots, instead of us," McFadyen said. "They've been changing and ignoring some well-established pilot work rules that we've had for a very long time," he added, referring to leaves of absence.
WestJet declined to comment on the dispute. But CEO Gregg Saretsky said earlier this week the airline doesn't want WestJet to suffer pay cuts by moving to Swoop.
Swoop to launch in June
During a conference call on Tuesday, Saretsky said he wants to allow pilots from WestJet and WestJet Encore to seek promotions to work at the new airline and that WestJet is negotiating with the union to maintain one seniority list for all of its pilots, allowing them to move from one brand to another without losing pay and seniority rights.
Swoop is to launch with three aircraft in June and grow to six by September and 10 by the spring of next year, eventually reaching 30 to 40 aircraft on domestic and international flights.
McFadyen said the union will seek to represent Swoop pilots as well.