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235 flights cancelled as WestJet waits to hear from labour minister on next steps in mechanics strike


WestJet said 235 flights have been cancelled Saturday as it waits to see what the next steps are in its ongoing labour dispute with its mechanics.

CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech and president Diederik Pen gave an update Saturday morning, where they expressed exasperation with the actions of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), which went on strike action Friday night after agreeing to binding arbitration.

The move was unexpected because on Thursday, federal labour minister Seamus O’Regan announced that he was ordering both parties to submit to binding arbitration in order to find a settlement and avoid Canada Day weekend chaos for thousands of travellers.

“The (labour) minister has called CIRB (Canadian Industrial Relations Board) to mandate binding arbitration,” said von Hoensbroech. “so with this, the bargaining process has actually ended, because an arbitrator is going to decide on a contract, and not the bargaining table.

“This makes a strike totally absurd.”

Saturday morning, on social media, O’Regan issued a statement  expressing frustration with the unexpected developments.

"The Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) has issued an order referring the WestJet-AMFA dispute to binding arbitration for a first collective agreement under Section 80 of the Canada Labour Code.

"I am reviewing the Board's decision, which is clearly inconsistent with my direction to the Board," he posted. "I will be looking at additional steps to protect the interests of the employer, the union and all Canadians travelling over this national holiday weekend."

A CIRB document given to CTV News confirmed the board "finds that the ministerial referral does not have the effect of suspending the right to strike or lockout."

'Exercising our right to strike'

The federal government had previously ordered binding arbitration but Friday evening, the AMEs' union rep Ian Evershed told CTV News, "That doesn't deter us or prevent us from exercising our right to strike at this time."

Evershed said, "In the minister's letter, there's no indication as to direction on the topic of strike or lockout."

Saturday around 12:35 p.m., WestJet released a statement condeming the actions of the mechanics union.

“This situation is devastating.," said Pen. "The union’s irrational actions are single-handedly causing irrevocable damage to our guests who are missing wedding celebrations, critical medical appointments, family reunions and long-awaited vacations, while stranding thousands of Canadians who are left without support or a flight home.

“We are seeking every avenue for intervention and working around the clock to maintain a stable network, while we reduce our flying in a safe and controlled manner."

'Waiting for clarification from minister'

Von Hoensbroech said at the noon EST update that the airline was waiting to hear from the labour minister for next steps to take in the process.

Saturday around 1:30 p.m. EST, O'Regan posted an update on social media.

"I have reviewed the decision of the Canada Industrial Relations Board in response to my direction that the dispute beetween WestJet and AMFA be referred to first contract arbitration," he said.

"The Board is independent of the government and I respect its authority," he added. "I will be meeting the parties later today to discuss this matter."

CTV News has reached out to WestJet and representatives from AMFA for comment on the labour minister's remarks and how that might impact negotiations.

Seeking government intervention

Earlier this month, the mechanics voted overwhelmingly to reject a tentative deal with the Calgary-based airline, prompting WestJet to seek government intervention.

Gabor Lukacs, president of advocacy group Air Passenger Rights, said as things currently stand the union is participating in a legal strike.

“I believe that the blame here lies at the feet of management and not the union,” Lukacs said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. “From a business management perspective they (WestJet) have not been handling the situation well and they need to face the music.”

The airline has said the flight cancellations could affect as many as 20,000 passengers and Lukacs said people need to know their rights.

He said WestJet has an obligation under the law to find stranded passengers alternate travel arrangements within 48 hours, either through another of its flights or with a competitor.

People can also ask for a refund, although Lukacs said he recommends against doing so.

“I would urge passengers not to take a refund unless they are absolutely sure they don’t want to travel,” he said. “If you take a refund then WestJet can wash its hands of its obligations to you.”

This isn't the first time labour unrest at WestJet has affected holiday weekend travel plans. The airline averted a strike last year in the early hours of the May long weekend, but before cancelling over 230 flights and forcing thousands of people to have their travel plans changed.

Saturday morning, Pen said travelers whose flights were disrupted were being compensated with an overnight hotel stay.

If no solution is reached by early Saturday afternoon, he added, an additional 150 flights would be cancelled.

'Total agreement with the mechanics'

Despite the inconvenience of flight cancellations, some WestJet passengers expressed sympathy for the mechanics.

Joey Ballantyne was trying to catch a plane to Winnipeg in order to connect to a flight home to Grand Rapids, Manitoba after a visit to Los Angeles.

"From what we've been told we are our flight has been cancelled and they're paying for our hotel room," Ballantyne said. "I think it's BS because I told my boss, I was gonna come back to work. Yeah, I told her I was coming back to work right away. And I expected the flight to be on time because we already paid for it. So we should be on time. And yeah, that's not too good."

Joey Ballatyne, from Grand Rapids, Manitoba, said he supported the mechanics even if it meant his flight from Calgary to Winnipeg was cancelled.

When he was informed by CTV News that the mechanics had gone on strike, he expressed sympathy for their actions.

"OK, I'm in total agreement with the mechanics," he said. "I myself, am an industrial mechanic. And I'm in total agreement with those guys. Because like, how is this plane gonna fly if it wasn't for a mechanic, right? It's a mechanic that makes everything work properly. And we should be totally agreed, agreeing with what they demand.

"I don't mind it. If it's for the mechanics," he added. "I thought it was a pilot (strike and) said I was mad. But it's for the mechanics -- and I'm in total agreement with them."

Meanwhile, Mitch Lapointe was trying to get to Moncton from Edmonton, but missed the connecting flight out of Calgary  Friday due to "human error."

"They (WestJet) didn't tell us what what the issue was," Lapointe said. "But the flight crew was coming in from Vancouver, and they arrived in Edmonton late, so our plane was late to leave Edmonton.

Mitch Lapointe is travelling from Edmonton to Moncton, but missed his connecting flight out of Calgary because the WestJet flight crew was late arriving in Edmonton from Vancouver, causing the flight to depart late. He was scheduled to fly to Toronto at midnight on Friday, to connect to a flight to Moncton.

"It's a little bit frustrating," he added. "After, you know, being away and just a really long day yesterday then getting to Calgary with the hopes of making our connection, and then we were given a night at a hotel with some food vouchers, but of course, you get to the hotel at 2 a.m. and there's a huge line of other people who are also tired and frustrated.

"So yeah," he added. "It's been a long, long 24 hours for sure."

Lapointe was scheduled to fly out of Calgary at midnight to Toronto, where he would connect to a flight bound for Moncton.

Saturday morning at WestJet, the company president said he felt sympathy for the estimated 33,000 passengers whose Canada Day travel plans have been disrupted -- with the possibility that an additional 150 flights impacting thousands more travellers may be cancelled later in the day.

“We are working on resolving this as quickly as possible,” Pen said.

With files from The Canadian Press and Damien Wood Top Stories

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