Sunwing knew company was about to be sold to Westjet during labour talks, pilots union alleges

The union that represents the pilots at discount airline Sunwing has filed an official complaint with Canada's Industrial Relations Board alleging that the company negotiated a recent labour deal in bad faith because it knew a sale of the airline to Westjet was pending.

Union representing pilots files complaint with Industrial Relations Board alleging bad faith negotiations

The union that represents the pilots at discount airline Sunwing has filed an official complaint with Canada's Industrial Relations Board alleging that the company negotiated a recent labour deal in bad faith because it knew a sale of the airline to Westjet was on the table.

The Unifor union made a deal with the airline on behalf of the 451 pilots it represents that brought modest wage increases and improvements to other benefits. When the deal was ratified in February, it was hailed as an agreement that would bring some stability to all sides in what had been an up and down few years for the airline industry.

But that optimism started to wane when the airline announced a few weeks later that it has agreed to be acquired by Calgary-based Westjet.

The union is alleging that the airline's management knew that a takeover offer was in the works, and had they shared that with the union during the negotiations, they wouldn't have made the concessions they did.

As such, the union is filing an official complaint with Canada's Industrial Relations Board alleging that the company was bargaining in bad faith by not disclosing its looming sale.

"It was of paramount importance to the union to receive assurances from the employer that it was not discussing a sale to WestJet, as any potential sale would have had important consequences on the union's positions with respect to bargaining," the filing reads.

CBC News reached out to Sunwing and Westjet for comment. Those requests were not returned.

While Unifor initially welcomed the merger, since then they say the company is seeking further savings via contract violations as air travel ramps up again from its pandemic doldrums.

"What we'd like to do is to revisit the areas of the collective agreement that would have been discussed and negotiated differently had the airline come to us and been honest that these discussions were taking place" said Barret Armann, president of Unifor Local 7378, which represents the pilots, in an interview with CBC News.

The union says it doesn't object to the merger, but simply wants to ensure Sunwing pilots will be on a level playing field with other Westjetters if and when it happens.

"The company said it was a great plan to expand. We think it's a great idea provided there's wage parity and that they will agree to whatever deals we come up with," Armann said. "At the end of the day our pilots don't want to be kicked to the street to start again."

Airport chaos

The Sunwing merger with Westjet is slated to be completed by the end of this year, both companies have previously said.

It's not immediately clear what the filing with the board means for the deal's likelihood of going through. It already faces numerous regulatory hurdles, including from Canada's Competition Bureau, which has already said it plans to review the deal to make sure it is a good thing for consumers.

WATCH | Why air travel in Canada is so difficult right now:

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Long security lines at several Canadian airports are the result of a shortage in staff, according to officials. The union representing screening officers suggests recruitment and retention challenges would be resolved if employees were better trained and paid more.

The potential of labour strife is yet another piece of bad news for Canada's snarled travel industry, which has been beset by staff shortages, long lines, rampant delays and baggage headaches amid the pandemic.

Armann puts most of the blame for what's happening at Canadian airports right now squarely at the feet of the airlines themselves, who cut staffing to the bone during the pandemic, begged for help from government, and are now scrambling to ramp up again.

"It's all a factor of companies laying everybody off and [now] running to the employees saying, 'Can you come and work for us?" Armann said. "You threw us to the curb for a year and half when we could barely pay our mortgages and now you want us to work really hard."

John Gradek, a former executive at Air Canada who is now a lecturer on the aviation industry at McGill University in Montreal, told CBC News on Monday he expects those issues to persist at least through the summer.

"Unless you have a high tolerance for risk, it's probably not a good time to travel," Gradek said. "Patience is the operative word."

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