Canadian Auto Workers president Ken Lewenza says his union is in the preliminary stages of talks with employees of discount carrier WestJet Airlines, a non-union company based in Calgary.
Lewenza told the Canadian Press on Tuesday that the 250,000-member union has received "several" calls from WestJet employees and is "very much interested" in welcoming workers with Canada's second-biggest airline into the CAW fold.
The union, which elected Lewenza as its president over the weekend, replacing the retiring Buzz Hargrove, represents auto assembly and parts workers as well as employees in the fisheries, airlines and other sectors.
"The wealth that our employees have generated for themselves through share appreciation is remarkable and unique in the airline industry."—Ferio Pugliese
"The way you organize is you get your fair share of calls, which we're getting, and then the next thing is you try to organize the committee and that's the process we're at right now," Lewenza said in an interview.
WestJet is not unionized but says it treats its nearly 5,700 workers fairly. The company, which has an entrepreneurial culture, has long touted its profit-sharing and share ownership plans, in which workers receive large bonuses when the carrier performs well financially.
Historically, such profit sharing can account for between a quarter and a third of worker compensation at the carrier, which has run ads in the past that trumpet the fact that WestJet employees are also shareholders of the company and are motivated to provide high levels of customer service.
But WestJet has been hard hit by rising fuel prices and a slowing U.S. economy, and its shares have dropped more then 40 per cent in the last year on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
'WestJet empowers our people'
Ferio Pugliese, WestJet's executive vice-president of people, said more than 80 per cent of the airline's staff own shares in the company.
"WestJet empowers our people to think and act like owners who have a stake in the success of the company," Pugliese said in a statement.
"The wealth that our employees have generated for themselves through share appreciation is remarkable and unique in the airline industry."
Don Hougan, chair of WestJet's employee association and a member of WestJet's board, said the employees have demonstrated that there is no need or desire for union representation.
"The great success of this airline comes through our engaged and committed workforce. At a time when economies are struggling, fuel prices are at new highs, and airlines are downsizing, WestJet remains a worldwide success story and continues to grow," he said.
Profit share more than doubles
In 2007, WestJet's employee profit share for the year more than doubled to $48.6 million from $20.3 million. But the company's second-quarter earnings, released in July, were down more than 10 per cent to $30.2 million, or 23 cents per share, from earnings a year earlier of $33.7 million, or 26 cents per share.
Revenue rose to $616 million from $498.2 million, but was offset by rising fuel costs.
The CAW is Canada's largest industrial union but has seen a decline in membership in the auto sector in recent years as the so-called Detroit Three carmakers – GM, Ford and Chrysler – pare operations and shut down plants as they streamline their North American operations.
So far, the union has failed in efforts to unionize Japanese carmakers Toyota and Honda in Ontario, so it is turning to the airline sector, where it already represents about 5,000 Air Canada employees.