Multiple union drives on the go at WestJet after pilots vote to certify

Months after WestJet's pilots vote to form union, multiple drives are underway and the airline's management is pushing back.

Mechanics, customer service workers, flight attendants all working to form unions at the airline

There are multiple union drives underway at WestJet including those by Unifor and CUPE, both currently representing workers at Air Canada.

Two months after its pilots voted in favour of joining the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), there are multiple unions working to certify other employees at WestJet.

The WestJet Professional Flight Attendants Association (WPFAA) is an in-house group that been working for three years to certify flight attendants. It now has signed cards from more than 35 per cent of its employee group, enough to trigger a vote.

The association is encouraging past members to renew cards as federal labour laws dictate that if the WPFAA can get 50 per cent plus one of the flight attendants to sign a card, they can certify without a vote.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is also signing up flight attendants, having re-started its drive in the spring. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) is working to organize mechanics and customer service agents, while Unifor is trying to certify call centre and other front-line customer service workers.

All of the unions have been laying the groundwork since before the pilot's vote in May, but the efforts have accelerated in recent months, after the pilot's vote passed with 63 per cent voting to join ALPA.  

"We've been working on it for about two years," said John Aman, head of organizing for Unifor. "But it's been gathering steam recently. I think the fact that the pilots organized was a boost to all the other employees at WestJet that were looking at organizing."

WestJet pushing back

WestJet is pushing back against the drives. In a note sent to employees last week, WestJet's chief executive Gregg Saretsky said the unions are "opportunistically trying to grow their business by targeting WestJetters."

"Because let's be clear — unions are a business. They increase their revenue by recruiting new members and WestJet represents an opportunity to significantly increase their profits."

Labour unions are not-for-profit organizations, but do collect dues from members.

The larger case that WestJet is making to its employees is that it is better for them to have a direct relationship with the management of the company, instead having an intermediary, such as a union, speaking for them.

"WestJet is working to ensure that WestJetters are armed with the facts about representation and unions as there has been information provided to our employees that quite simply is not factual," said WestJet spokesperson Lauren Stewart in an email.

"We encourage employees to fact-check, seek answers from knowledgeable sources and make informed decisions when deciding how they would like to be represented in the workplace."

Seniority and scheduling biggest issues

"The issue is scheduling," said Daniel Kufuor-Boakye, who speaks for the internal flight attendants group the WPFAA.

He said it's important to have transparency on when people are called in on reserve and to have consequences for breaching written work rules for both the company and the employees.

"Seniority is the big issue," said Bill Trbovich, head of communications for IAMAW. "You'll have someone who's been working 10 or 12 years and they have to work weekends, and you'll have someone new come in and they only have to work days. It's a hot issue for the senior employees."

WestJet defended its current system to employees saying that "a lack of seniority system was something chosen by WestJetters as a way to honour everyone's contributions in line with our culture."

WestJet built its culture on the idea that employees are owners through profit sharing and employee stock purchase plans and that they act as such. That culture has become stressed as the airline has expanded into multiple bases and types of aircraft, long haul, and no-frills flying.

"We continue to believe that employees and leadership work best together using a model that has been built by WestJet employees for WestJet employees," said Stewart.