Braid: Federal bumbling to blame for WestJet mechanics strike mess

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Thousands of Canadian travellers face a spectacular mess created by the dysfunction, ineptitude and plain stupidity of a Liberal minister and agency.

WestJet had cancelled 410 flights by Saturday evening. This happens over the Canada Day long weekend, one of the busiest travel times, after mechanics suddenly went on strike Friday night.

Many will blame the workers and their Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). They shouldn’t. Responsibility for this disaster lies squarely at Ottawa’s feet.

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Nobody was expecting the walkout — including WestJet — after federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan ordered binding arbitration on Thursday.

WestJet breathed a deep sigh of relief.

The airline said the mechanics “confirmed they will abide by the direction. Given this, a strike or lockout will not occur, and the airline will no longer proceed in cancelling flights.”

Happy travellers started packing their bags for weekend flights. WestJet began to stand down from strike preparation.

Then the Canada Industrial Relations Board stepped in, and virtually invited the mechanics to go on strike.

The board enabled the binding arbitration ordered by O’Regan but then added: “ministerial referral does not have the effect of suspending the right to strike or lockout.”

You’d think the minister would know this. But he appeared as shocked as anyone when the mechanics exercised their newly-endorsed right.

They did what any union — or employer — will do in such an acrimonious dispute. They grabbed the advantage handed to them. This one came gift-wrapped from a bumbling minister, via one of the Liberals’ inexplicable agencies.

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O’Regan said with typical crisis smarminess: “I am reviewing the Board’s decision, which is clearly inconsistent with my direction to the board.

“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.”

Too late. For tens of thousand of travellers, the weekend is already ruined.

On Thursday, O’Regan had said nothing about a strike. He only talked about how he was leading WestJet and the mechanics to eternal harmony.

“As minister of labour, I am using my authorities under the Canada Labour Code to further the goals of last week’s Section 80 referral to help the parties reach their first collective agreement,” he posted on Twitter.

“I have directed the CIRB to impose final binding arbitration to resolve outstanding terms of the collective agreement.”

O’Regan said this would bring the parties one step closer to successive agreements “reached at the bargaining table.”

The minister obviously didn’t believe — or even know — that binding arbitration alone would not prevent a strike, or that the CIRB would make a big point of saying one would be allowed.

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The consequence is chaos for travellers and a serious challenge for a Calgary-based airline still recovering from pandemic damage.

The airline is beyond furious with the mechanics association. “The scale of this deliberate disruption is devastating and AMFA must be held accountable for their reckless actions,” it said in a statement.

Everybody wants this to end quickly. And yet, as one regular flier said, “you also don’t want unhappy airplane mechanics.”

By later Saturday, O’Regan had talked to the warring parties. He said on Twitter:

“Met with Westjet and AMFA this evening. I told them they needed to work together with the Canada Industrial Relations Board to resolve their differences and get their first agreement.

“There’s a lot at stake here. Canadians need this resolved.”

He says nothing about his earlier remark that the CIRB decision was “clearly inconsistent with my direction.”

Once again, the Liberals show they’re hopelessly inept at delivering basic functions of government.

In trying to avert a strike, they helped cause one. It doesn’t get dumber than that.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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