Is Westjet Really Safe or Just Unfair?

Will Abbot

WestJet aircraft maintenance is headed in a direction inconsistent with safe operations.”
West Jet is a Canadian airline headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, carrying more than 66,130 passengers per day.

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On December 11, 2023, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) filed unfair labor practice charges against WestJet Airlines (WJA) with the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB).

This story is very similar to an incident that happened on American Airlines in 2015 and an eTurboNews article asked if American Airlines was really safe.

On March 30, 2023, the CIRB certified AMFA as the representative of the airline’s Aircraft Maintenance Engineers (AMEs) and all other skilled aircraft maintenance employees.

The dispute concerns WestJet’s unilateral creation of the new position of Operations Manager (OM) and the transfer to that position of safety-sensitive maintenance coordination work previously performed by bargaining unit members.

The OM positions have been largely filled with former Aircraft Maintenance Leads (AMLs) who had been included within the CIRB-certified bargaining unit.

AMFA’s charges allege that WestJet’s actions have “caused disarray within maintenance operations and hostility among co-workers whose integrated efforts are critical to maintenance safety culture.”

WestJet managers have recognized the disruptive impact of the company’s actions. In an email dated November 10, WestJet’s Senior Manager, Labour Relations Virginia Swindall sought AMFA’s immediate “intervention in de-escalating” a “serious and emerging concern” relating to its Toronto maintenance operations.

According to Swindall, WestJet’s Manager, Line Maintenance Darren Cook reported that a Toronto AME was “passionately advising our employees to ‘Fuck the OMs’, etc.”

In a November 13 letter seeking to resolve the dispute, AMFA Region II Director Will Abbott advised WestJet that its actions had “sown dissension within the department with AMEs perceiving former AMLs who have accepted OM positions as scabs who have betrayed the bargaining unit and cut off their brother AMEs from economic opportunities.”

“The safe performance of aircraft maintenance requires professionalism and mutual trust,”

AMFA National President Bret Oestreich

“By its own admission, the airline’s actions have led to emotion and hostility within its maintenance operations. WestJet aircraft maintenance professionals unionized because they felt disrespected by the carrier and dismissed the AME’s critical contributions as a stakeholder to WestJet operations.

Now, WestJet seems to be methodically rubbing salt into the wound.”

“At several stations, we have witnessed a troubling reduction in lead oversight of maintenance operations,” added Oestreich. “This arises in a context where maintenance staffing at some stations remains below pre-COVID levels despite a post-COVID surge in flight volume. WestJet aircraft maintenance is headed in a direction inconsistent with safe operations.”

“Once the CIRB has certified a union, the law prohibits unilateral changes of status quo working conditions without prior negotiations with the union,” commented Samuel Seham, an attorney for AMFA. “This is particularly true with respect to the transfer of work outside the bargaining unit and the resulting loss of economic opportunities.

To the extent that chaos now reigns within the airline’s maintenance operations, I attribute that chaos to what I consider to be WestJet’s unlawful conduct. We have commenced this CIRB action in the interest of our members and aviation safety.”

How did this situation develop?

It escalated with an email by Virginia Swindall, the Senior Senior Manager of Labor Relations for Westjet trying to understand a serious and emerging concern at Toronto International Airport, and what she said a union representative who is at work and is passionately advising employees to Fuck the OM (operation managers)

She requested an immediate intervention to de-escalate this situation saying the two OMs on duty can be instructed by the Company on how to manage this situation, but her preference is to have the union participate.

Wilber “Will” Abbott representing the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) responded:

The background concerns WestJet actions in derogation of the bargaining unit as defined by the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) and in violation of the Canada Labour Code. Because the issue has been addressed in previous correspondence to you from both AMFA officers and legal counsel, I will address it in summary fashion herein.

WestJet has initiated federal court litigation challenging the scope of our bargaining unit as defined by the CIRB; however, that challenge focuses on discreet “behind the wall” positions. WestJet never challenged the inclusion of the job classifications of Aircraft Maintenance Lead (AML) and Inspector Crew Lead (ICL) within a bargaining unit centered on aircraft maintenance professionals. To the contrary, WestJet supported their inclusion.

AMLs and ICLs performed safety-sensitive work that included the coordination of aircraft repair, troubleshooting airworthiness issues, and acting as a liaison between management and AMEs directly performing the maintenance work.

After the CIRB’s certification of the bargaining unit, WestJet unilaterally implemented an Operations Manager (OM) position whose functions mirror those in WestJet’s AML job description. WestJet then solicited existing AMLs, ICLs and ACAs to fill the OM positions without backfilling the vacated AML/ICL/ACA positions.

At the bargaining table, AMFA representatives advised you that WestJet’s actions had created an operational crisis characterized by “disarray” within the maintenance department adversely affecting aircraft repair. We also advised that WestJet’s actions had sown dissension within the department with AMEs perceiving former AMLs, who have accepted OM positions, as scabs who have betrayed the bargaining unit and cut off their brother AMEs from economic opportunities.

WestJet negotiators acknowledged the gravity of the situation and pledged to present a proposal for the purpose of averting CIRB charges and litigation.

On November 8, 2023, WestJet submitted a contract proposal that abandoned any pretense as to its objective. WestJet proposed the complete elimination of both the AML and ICL job classifications and the creation of a new Operational Lead (OL) position that WestJet described as exercising ICL- plus functions. In short, WestJet proposed that AMFA agree to the shifting of AML work outside the bargaining unit to the OM position.

“Fuck the OMs”

You advised that Darren Cook reported to you that a Toronto AME was “passionately advising our employees to ‘Fuck the OMs’, etc.” You ascribe the AME’s actions to an AMFA communication released on November 10.

In our own investigation, we have determined that any comment made by the AME was uttered, while alone, as a spontaneous, emotional response to unlawful WestJet actions and the OMs’ complicity therewith.

An OM, overhearing this utterance, challenged the AME. The AME explained himself, the OM appeared to accept the explanation, and the exchange ended in a friendly fist bump.

In short, Mr. Cook’s account appears to be not only erroneous but defamatory.

The account also illustrates the deleterious decline of WestJet maintenance operations. Safe maintenance practices depend on open communication between co-workers sharing a common objective.

Apparently, that has been replaced by mutual antagonism and an ugly informant culture.

Two men resolved an issue on the work floor and yet WestJet appears to be intent on manufacturing a basis for disciplining an AME.

“Fuck the OMs” – It is a sentiment widely shared among WestJet employees based on their feeling that the former AMLs have betrayed their co-workers.

To our regret, it is a feeling based on a solid factual foundation. In any event, such feelings do not provide a basis for disciplinary action.

Your email used the expression “‘Fuck the OMs’, etc.” Where WestJet accuses an AME of misconduct, the use of the term “etc.” is inappropriate. If there is additional relevant information, it should be shared from the outset.

Under the Canada Labour Code, AMFA demands that WestJet provide the following information:

(1) the identity of the witnesses that Mr. Cook relied upon for his report,
(2) any statements from direct witnesses that WestJet has obtained,
(3) any other communications upon which your email was based,
(4) the identity of those employees that Mr. Cook suggests the AME was “advising.”

Lead/OM Issue

You have asked for our assistance in reaching a negotiated settlement that would avoid the necessity of what would be a third round of litigation in the AMFA-WestJet relationship. We share that overall objective.

WHAT TO TAKE AWAY FROM THIS ARTICLE:

  • It escalated with an email by Virginia Swindall, the Senior Senior Manager of Labor Relations for Westjet trying to understand a serious and emerging concern at Toronto International Airport, and what she said a union representative who is at work and is passionately advising employees to Fuck the OM (operation managers) .
  • She requested an immediate intervention to de-escalate this situation saying the two OMs on duty can be instructed by the Company on how to manage this situation, but her preference is to have the union participate.
  • In a November 13 letter seeking to resolve the dispute, AMFA Region II Director Will Abbott advised WestJet that its actions had “sown dissension within the department with AMEs perceiving former AMLs who have accepted OM positions as scabs who have betrayed the bargaining unit and cut off their brother AMEs from economic opportunities.

About the author

Juergen T Steinmetz

Juergen Thomas Steinmetz has continuously worked in the travel and tourism industry since he was a teenager in Germany (1977).
He founded eTurboNews in 1999 as the first online newsletter for the global travel tourism industry.

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