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WestJet pilots and flight attendants racing to unionize

06/09/2015 08:00 EDT | Updated 06/09/2016 05:59 EDT
A group of WestJet flight attendants says it is very close to having enough members to form a union at the airline. The WestJet Professional Flight Attendants Association (WPFAA), which has been working to certify flight attendants at WestJet, says momentum is building and it expects to have the union cards it needs "very soon."

However, the WPFAA is racing against a deadline.  A week from today, labour law changes in Canada make it more difficult to form a union in a federally regulated industry such as airlines.

Under current Canadian law, 50.1 per cent of employees at WestJet need to sign a union card to trigger certification.  As of June 16, they will also have to vote in a secret ballot for the certification to go through, an extra hurdle that will make forming a union more difficult.

Recent agreement

Late in May, WestJet announced that its flight attendants had ratified a five-year work agreement with the airline.

At the time, 82 per cent of the flight attendants voted, but the agreement passed by a margin of only 57 per cent. That means that fewer than half of the company's nearly 3,000 flight attendants actually voted in favour of the deal.

CBC News spoke with one flight attendant who voted against the agreement, who asked that we not use her name, as she is concerned about ramifications from the airline. She has been a flight attendant at WestJet for more than five years and was about to reach the maximum pay level. Now she won't reach that pay level until 2019.

"It's effectively a decrease in pay," she said

She said that other flight attendants aren't happy about the agreement. "I was just on a five-day pairing and I talked to 10 people who want to sign their [union] cards."

The WPFAA says it is frustrated with the agreement for a number of reasons, such as the lower starting wage and the time it takes to get to the top tier of the pay scale. But ultimately, the problem is enforcing the agreement.

"WestJet is not bound by the terms in the document," the WPFAA said in response to emailed questions

"WestJet can change the terms at any time, because these guidelines are not legally enforceable to the company. This vote was a formality to make the flight attendants feel more engaged, without actually holding the company accountable to the terms."

The group say it hopes to get to 50.1 per cent before next week.

"That is our goal. Our greatest obstacle to certification is fear. The flight attendants are afraid to sign cards, because of the stigma attached to unionizing and because we have always been told we would lose privileges if we ever did certify," the union said.

"Over the last few months, we have seen great momentum, and we believe that since this agreement passed, and without a majority vote, we will get the cards we need to certify very soon."

WestJet says that it's aware of the union drive, but stands behind the agreement voted on by the flight attendants.

"The agreement was voted on by 81.7 per cent of eligible flight attendants," said WestJet spokeswoman Brie Ogle.

"As far as we are concerned, the strong voter turnout shows a high level of engagement with our flight attendants.  We now have a five-year agreement in place and we are ready to roll up our sleeves and make this work for our cabin crew, our business, and a strong, consistent experience for our guests."

Pilots also working against deadline

The group working to organize the pilots, the WestJet Professional Pilots Association, did not wish to discuss its certification efforts, but those efforts have clearly ramped up in recent months. There are almost daily reminders to sign or renew union cards on the group's Facebook page.

On June 1, a captain from Southwest Airlines came to Calgary to pitch the advantages of unionizing to the WestJet group, explaining how the airline could maintain its corporate culture through certification. Southwest was the original model for WestJet, and is one of the most consistently profitable airlines in North America, despite being unionized for nearly 40 years.

Why the push to unionize?

WestJet has long prided itself on its staff relations. Unionization efforts through the 2000s failed. But those relations with staff became more strained after WestJet launched Encore in 2013 with pilot pay scales that differed between the main carrier and Encore.

The flight attendants say they are looking to recapture the spirit of WestJet's early days.

"We are just looking to gain back some of the culture and morale that has been lost over the last few years. We are hoping to be the solution that many of the flight attendants are seeking."

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