BUSINESS

WestJet CEO Asks Staff To Think Hard Before Choosing Union

06/11/2015 08:07 EDT | Updated 06/12/2016 05:59 EDT
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This is a tense time at WestJet, Canada's second largest airline. Two employee groups — representing pilots and flight attendants — are trying to sign up enough members to form unions before a deadline next Tuesday.

"There's a lot of tension between pilots," said Robin Murray, a captain with WestJet. "Some are for it and some aren't. I struggle with that every day. A lot of these guys are my friends, guys I've known for years. And they don't see it quite the way I do."

Murray isn't in favour of the union. He joined the airline in 1999, when it was just three years old, and he says that WestJet has been good to him.

"My T4 was $315,000 last year, and that was a lower one. And I only work 16 days a month."

Right now, Murray is among the majority at WestJet, But the race is on to change that.

Under current federal labour law, 50 per cent plus one of the employees at WestJet need to sign a union card to trigger certification.

As of June 16, that will change.

For federally regulated industries such as the airlines, a secret ballot will also be required before a union is certified. History has shown that a secret ballot makes the path toward certification more difficult.

The group trying to represent the flight attendants, the WestJet Professional Flight Attendants Association, says it is close to having the numbers in place.

The group trying to form a union among the pilots, the WestJet Professional Pilots Association, is not talking about its progress, but has been intensifying efforts in recent weeks. 

On June 1, a captain from Southwest Airlines came to Calgary to pitch the advantages of unionizing to the WestJet pilots group, explaining how the airline could maintain its corporate culture through certification. 

WestJet pushes back

This week, WestJet pushed back. The airline's chief executive Gregg Saretsky sent an email to all of WestJet's staff, imploring them to think twice before signing a union card.

In that note, Saretsky said that WestJet employees had created one of the most successful airlines in the world and that it has paid out nearly $400 million in profit sharing over the past 19 years. Saretsky said that WestJet now stands at a crossroads.

"Having a union as your exclusive bargaining agent would have a significant impact on the nature of your employment and the way the company and employees interact with each other," Saretsky said in the email.

In a document attached to the email, WestJet says that a union cannot guarantee anything, including the terms of employment, current wages and profit sharing and the employee share purchase plan.

The culture question

One of the questions that pilots and flight attendants are asking themselves as they decide whether to sign a union card is what unionization might do to the airline's corporate culture.

WestJet has a well-earned reputation for having a positive corporate culture, one that influences customer service in a good way. It's a place where flight attendants crack cheesy jokes over the airplane's intercom and where all staff, from the CEO down, whether they are working or flying for pleasure, are required to clean the aircraft after landing. 

Robin Murray says the change in culture is something that he worries about.

"Well, I think if a union comes in, I think you're going to have a real divided group. They might get 50 plus one. But don't forget the 50 that don't want it."

The two sides have four more days to make their case before the law changes on June 16.

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