Multiple union drives reflect turbulence at WestJet

Back of Westjet flight attendant. Creative Commons licensed photo: Cara Grimshaw Photography/flickr

WestJet employees are working in crowded environments -- and not just airports or airplanes.

Several campaigns are underway to organize company employees, including customer service representatives and flight attendants.

The efforts come at a crucial time for Canada's second-largest airline. WestJet plans to expand what they call ultra-low cost services in 2018. But workers say the company that prides itself on its fun and caring environment, with Disney-themed flights and Christmas-miracle, viral-sensation commercials, doesn't do enough to protect them.

According to figures posted on the company's website, revenue has increased every year since 2010. WestJet credits much of this success to its employees, the majority of whom have ownership stakes in the company. "We work hard -- really hard -- on making our employees feel valued, cared for and empowered," the company said in a June 29 blog post in response to being named an iconic Canadian brand. The post credits the success, in part, to helping employees succeed in their jobs.

But the growing number of organizing drives speaks to disconnect between the image of happy WestJet employees seen on commercials and the reality of their working lives. The airline declined an interview with rabble.ca for this article. But in an email sent to employees last month, company president and CEO Gregg Saretsky spoke out against union drives, claiming unions were misleading employees and only concerned about making money.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) began organizing customer service representatives and aircraft maintenance engineers this year. Unifor wants to represent WestJet's customer service representatives and call centre workers.

Organizers are optimistic, a sentiment likely boosted by the pilots' vote earlier this year to join the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world's largest pilot union. Sixty-two per cent of pilots voted in favour. With more than 1,400 members, WestJet pilots became the union's largest Canadian pilot group.

They're not the largest employee group seeking unionization. Organizing efforts have ramped up among WestJet's more than 3,000 flight attendants. Two groups are vying for their votes: the WestJet Professional Flight Attendants Association (WJPFAA), and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). This will be CUPE's third try at organizing the cabin crew. Organizing drives in 2006 and 2013-2014 were unsuccessful.

Employees' concerns are consistent across positions: unpredictable schedules, few benefits related to seniority, a growing sense the company ignores them and employee associations can't effectively represent them. But flight attendants face unique pressures. They manage workplace stress under passengers' watchful, and often critical, eyes. For WestJet customers, they are the face of the organization.

Working in 'hell' while taking passengers to paradise

A union could increase workers' health and safety protections, address problems with scheduling and seniority and ensure better wages and benefits. One of CUPE's health and safety specialists is an expert in onboard airline health and safety. According to information posted on a CUPE website dedicated to the WestJet organizing, Air Canada flight attendants with 10 years' experience earn $7.40 an hour more than WestJet flight attendants with the same experience. Air Canada's flight attendants also have a defined benefit pension plan.

"Image is everything at the company," said Daniel Kufuor, the interim treasurer at the WJPFAA. Kufuor was a WestJet flight attendant for 15 years, until January 2016.

Flight attendants must maintain the image of a company that values customers above all else -- even while working in unsafe conditions.

rabble.ca spoke with two current WestJet flight attendants. One has worked for the company for more than five years, one for less than two. Both are based in different regions of Canada. Both spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.

It's "hell," said one, describing the occupation's physical and mental toll. They compared working on an airplane to living in a jail cell, except planes have nicer views. Sicknesses can spread quickly. A flight attendant's office, in many respects, is a chair, only a few centimetres away from a washroom.

Exhaustion is common. Fatigue means flight attendants may be less alert to respond in emergencies. Depending on flight schedules, flight attendants may switch from a night shift to a day shift in less than 24 hours. Employees have been concerned about problems with scheduling for years, but many say the company has done little to address this. One flight attendant said those who call to say they're too exhausted to work face numerous questions.

Past and present flight attendants mentioned concerns about a task crucial for passenger and employer safety: cleaning the airplanes. Flight attendants groom planes before and after flights, but aren't paid for it. (Flight attendants are only paid for work done once plane doors are closed.) Their health and safety equipment consists of gloves, said Kufuor. There's little, if any, training about this. The company provides great technical training, said Kufuor, but not for routine tasks like properly cleaning planes

No 'red carpet' for unions

But unions may be unable to change WestJet's company culture -- the very thing that makes the unionization drives necessary, and difficult.

Few deny the company's unique atmosphere, based largely on many employees' being part-owners of the company. In a letter on the WestJet organizing site, CUPE national president Mark Hancock described the culture as something "special" that contributes to the company being a "standout in the industry."

WestJet is "not a company that we would call union-friendly in any stretch of the imagination," Hancock said. "They're not going to roll out the red carpet for us."

On July 6, company president and CEO Gregg Saretsky sent an email to employees addressing the unionization efforts. He said other unions were targeting WestJet employees to "opportunistically" increase their business because of the pilots' successful unionization. He reminded employees of their status as owners of the company. "Isn't it better," he asked, referring to union dues, "to get a cheque than a bill?"

Unions remove direct access between employees and the company, he said. That access, he wrote, is necessary for the company to succeed.

But past and current employees, as well as union organizers at other airlines, say this culture of corporate collaboration between employees and the airline has been in descent for a long time.

Kufuor said he believes changes became more apparent in the fall of 2006. "It was almost like a culture flush of the toilet," he said. "The old WestJet, the WestJet people see in the commercials, it ceased to exist."

Workers became "disposable," he said. "We went from being owners to renters."

During this time, WestJet was consistently ranked as having one of the most admired corporate cultures in Canada, the history page on the company's website says.

In a statement online, Sam Jabbar, who is working with the organizing effort at IAM, said employees have told the union the family atmosphere has been "replaced by a corporate attitude that's interested only in making a profit."

WestJet employees have differing opinions about the company. One flight attendant who supports CUPE told rabble.ca that most cabin crew aren't truly unhappy, they just want to keep the good things they have and make it better.

Airline workers from outside WestJet also question whether employees are receiving proper treatment from the company.

Caroline Haddad has been organizing WestJet customer service representatives and call-centre agents for Unifor. An Air Canada customer service representative for decades, she said WestJet has a "wonderful airline with this great culture of independence." But many workers feel their voices aren't heard. Many WestJet customer service representatives are part-time employees, some work multiple jobs. At Air Canada, she said, unionization has allowed guarantees about how many positions are part time or full time. She's built a career, bought a house -- things WestJet's workers may never be able to do.

WestJet employees have built an "awesome" company and culture, she said, "but are they really being rewarded fairly for their contributions?"

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Creative Commons licensed photo: Cara Grimshaw Photography/flickr

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