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A small, independent union fighting for its first contract at the second largest airline in Canada recently won big.

On June 28, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) struck WestJet after months of trying to negotiate a contract covering roughly 680 airline maintenance engineers. The airline mechanics’ job action forced WestJet to cancel more than 400 flights and ultimately raise wages by around 26 per cent. 

But this strike had more at stake than the wages and working conditions of AMFA members. In yet another political overreach, the federal government attempted to force the union into binding arbitration and frustrate these workers’ ability to exercise their constitutional right to strike. 

By proceeding with their job action, and successfully fighting the company and government at the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB), AMFA demonstrated the power and importance of the strike to the broader Canadian labour movement.   

AMFA is a relatively new union in Canada. While United States-based, the independent union has sought to represent aircraft technicians on a craft basis across North America, organizing these skilled workers into separate bargaining units to improve their pay and working conditions. According to the union, it constitutionally limits itself to representing skilled airline maintenance engineers. There are approximately 17,000 airline maintenance engineers working in Canada. 

As AMFA’s airline representative at WestJet, Ian Evershed, explained to Class Struggle, “We’re a craft union specific to aircraft maintenance engineers. About 20-some years ago, AMFA was involved in decoupling the skilled from the unskilled at Northwest Airlines … It’s not to say anything negative about their [the unskilled] job categories; it’s just that we’re in two very distinct job categories.” 

National president Bret Oestreich put it this way in a January 2023 letter to new members at WestJet: “AMFA is the only union that constitutionally limits itself to representing the craft and class of our skilled trade, thus avoiding conflicts of interest with other groups,” adding, “Other labor organizations combine skilled technicians in a single bargaining unit that includes a majority of unskilled workers. The result is a system of governance that suppresses the wages, benefits, and collective voice of the airline maintenance engineers.”

For the union, this first contract at WestJet was thus vitally important. According to Evershed, AMFA aimed to set a precedent to encourage airline mechanics at other airlines, particularly Air Canada, to either organize or re-affiliate with their union. 

However, the process of winning a first agreement at WestJet was anything but straightforward. 

AMFA first announced it was organizing airline maintenance engineers at WestJet in November 2022, later filing for certification at the CIRB in January 2023 with 74 per cent of prospective members signing cards. At the time, aircraft mechanics at WestJet were not unionized and were the only remaining major group of unorganized workers at the airline. WestJet is AMFA’s second bargaining unit in Canada. 

The bargaining unit was officially certified on March 30, 2023, after WestJet previously attempted to reduce the number of workers who would be included by 100. Even after AMFA had given the company notice to bargain, WestJet continued to contest the union certification by seeking judicial review of the CIRB certification as well as altering terms and conditions of work without consulting AMFA. 

Bargaining commenced in early September, with the union seeking to bring rank-and-file members into the negotiations. WestJet refused to allow members into the negotiating sessions as “silent observers,” though many members caucused in separate rooms and stayed engaged with the bargaining process. Despite the company’s refusal to allow rank-and-file members’ attendance, early negotiations on non-economic issues seemed to be proceeding well, according to the union’s updates to members. 

In November, however, the company’s tone began to change. According to the union, WestJet cited “industry standards” to resist union proposals, some of which were meant to align airline maintenance engineers’ terms and conditions with the pilots. In other areas, the company tabled proposals below the minimum standards set out in the Canada Labour Code for non-union employees, such as those stipulating lay-off notice periods. The union also filed an unfair labour practice complaint against WestJet over company attempts to transfer work out of the bargaining unit through the creation of a new operations manager position. 

By the new year, AMFA was informing members that WestJet was putting the parties on course for a strike or lockout. In late January, the company unilaterally filed a notice of dispute with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, seeking a third party conciliator. 

The initial conciliation period was set to last until March 26, after which a 21-day cooling off period required by law would commence. This was later revised by one day, setting April 18 as the first day on which a strike could be called. As the union reported, at that point WestJet refused to commit to additional bargaining dates beyond April 4, despite the looming work stoppage. Up to early March, no proposals addressing wages, schedules or job security had been tabled. 

The company’s wage offer came during mid-March negotiations in the form of a proposed five-year contract with a cumulative 9.5 per cent increase, 3.5 per cent of which was to come in the first year. Despite these paltry wage proposals, some progress was made through a memorandum of understanding addressing non-wage issues and a renewed commitment to continue bargaining toward a contract in April. 

Positive momentum was short-lived, however. After a delayed response to the union’s comprehension package of bargaining proposals, WestJet moved only slightly on its wage offer and failed to meet the union’s demands on a range of other issues. Negotiations had again “hit a wall,” according to AMFA. 

On May 2, the union held a national strike vote as job action appeared increasingly unavoidable. Not to be outdone, WestJet then delivered its own 72-hour lockout notice, with May 7 as the day by which a deal would have to be settled to avoid a work stoppage. 

Before any tools were downed, however, WestJet and AMFA surprisingly announced that they had reached a tentative agreement (TA) on May 5. Yet when the TA was brought to members for a vote, workers overwhelmingly rejected it, with 97.25 per cent voting “no.” According to AMFA’s press release at the time, members cited economic issues and the company’s bad faith bargaining as reasons for their rejection of the TA. Add airline mechanics to the long list of workers rejecting post-pandemic tentative agreements. 

With the TA declined, the union released the results of its strike authorization vote: more than 99 per cent approved. Yet, despite members’ clear rebuke of the company’s positions and willingness to take action, WestJet refused to bargain and instead filed for an injunction to prevent a strike. 

As AMFA put it: “WestJet seeks to enlist the government of Canada as its accomplice. Its expressed objective is to use the government to impose the tentative agreement rejected by the membership or a potentially inferior agreement developed by an arbitrator.” The union added, “We are left with only one response. It is time to march, demonstrate, and lobby your elected officials.”

But in another gesture of good faith, AMFA returned to the table.

With agreement from WestJet for further bargaining dates on June 25 and 26, AMFA withdrew its strike notice, but to no avail. The company countered with a miserly 1 per cent economic enhancement, and strike and lockout notices were again issued

On June 27, federal Minister of Labour Seamus O’Regan then put his thumb on the scale for the company by directing the CIRB to impose final binding arbitration to resolve outstanding issues in the dispute. Ignoring the fact that the CIRB had already rejected WestJet’s own request for a strike injunction, it appears O’Regan sought to limit AMFA members’ right to strike. 

Cleverly, AMFA argued before the CIRB that the minister’s direction to arbitrate was in fact silent on the union’s strike notice. “The minister didn’t specifically prohibit the strike in his direction to the parties to refer the matter to arbitration. He didn’t specifically outline an injunction against the strike,” Evershed explained to Class Struggle.

Thankfully, the CIRB agreed and upheld AMFA’s right to continue with its strike, despite the minister’s political intervention. O’Regan characterized this as “inconsistent” with his direction, but it was of no consequence. 

Although the procedural process for arbitration continued, AMFA hit the picket lines, with the CIRB’s decision protecting it. WestJet sought to portray the union as engaging in unlawful strike activity, but such a characterization was patently false. 

While ultimately lasting only a couple of days, AMFA’s strike managed to secure significant gains for members. The second tentative agreement contained an immediate 15.5 per cent pay increase, plus another 10.75 per cent over the following four years. Members still need to vote, but it’s safe to assume the new contract will pass. 

“We set out to do something that really no union in Canada had done before. We were looking for not just an industry-leading contract but an industry-changing contract,” union representative Evershed told Class Struggle. AMFA gave airline mechanics a voice and an opportunity to “break the mold” by demonstrating their value and winning a sector-setting contract, he said. 

But the union also did a service for the entire Canadian labour movement by fighting to protect the right to strike. As Evershed rightly concluded, “It wasn’t just a win for AMFA, it was a great day for labour. It was a monumental event.”

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