07/20/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/19/2016 05:59 EDT

WestJet pilots begin union vote — what's at stake?

There's a lot at stake for WestJet, its employees and, potentially, its customers as the airline's pilots begin voting this week on whether to unionize. 

If the pilots vote in favour of a union, it becomes more likely that other employee groups will follow. And that, say experts, could forever change a company that has always projected an image of being freewheeling, low-cost and decidedly non-union. A movement is also afoot to unionize the airline's flight attendants. 

There are questions about whether customer service will suffer and whether costs for the Calgary-based airline will go up, forcing fares to do the same.

Customer service

Mark Satov, a Toronto-based customer service analyst who has worked with both unionized and non-unionized companies, says customer service often changes in a unionized culture.

"When you have a union, you don't have the same tools in your toolkit as an HR leader to impact culture," said Satov. 

"It's harder because you don't have the same ability to discipline people who aren't giving the same customer service, you don't have the ability to reward those who do." 

But the group working to unionize the flight attendants says it's more likely customer service will suffer when there is apathy among employees, something one representative says has begun at WestJet.

"We are fight attendants who truly believe that customers service is about taking care of our external guests and our internal guests, but that can only happen when we take care of each other," a representative of the WestJet Professional Flight Attendants Association told CBC News. CBC has agreed not to name members of the organizing group because of concern about their jobs. 

"[WestJet's] culture was based on the concept that we will take care of our people, who will take care of the guests, who will take care of the bottom line," the representative said. 

"Over the years, we've seen a shift in values. As WestJet has grown, the priority has become to the investors and the profitability of the company."

The group working to unionize the pilots is not talking to the media, but has set out its position on both its webpage and Facebook page.

"A vote for certification is not a vote against WestJet," the WestJet Professional Pilots Association said on Facebook. 

Corporate culture

​​Ben Cherniavsky, an airline analyst at the investment bank Raymond James said in a research report in June that — as the airline moved from a simple, low-cost structure to a more complex full-service airline, with charges for checked bags and premium seating — there has been tension about corporate culture at WestJet. 

The question is: Will unions change WestJet's culture? Or has WestJet's culture already changed and that's why the union movement has gained momentum?

"Airlines are 24/7, 364," said George Smith, a former airline executive and current adjunct professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. 

"It's a very busy and rapidly changing world, the needs of employees are not always first in those operations when you're trying to fill the seats of the airlines and get the aircraft moving. It's a modern day assembly line and one that never stops."

WestJet has traditionally enjoyed a cost advantage over Air Canada, though it has eroded as the airline matured and employees moved up the pay ladder. At the same time, Air Canada has negotiated long-term labour agreements that have given it more flexibility.

While there have been some indications of concern from Bay Street analysts about possible unionization at WestJet, the shares did not noticeably react to news in June that the unionization movement was gaining steam.

That may be because there is confidence that the airline can withstand any turbulence unionization may bring.

"Given the track record that WestJet has with positive employee relations is that even if they do get unionized, they will find a way to work constructively with the union and this will be a minor speed bump along the road," said Smith.

WestJet challenged vote

According to documents obtained by CBC News, WestJet challenged the validity of the pilots' vote.

In submissions to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, the airline questioned, among other things, whether pilots for its regional service, WestJet Encore, would be included in the pilots' vote and challenged whether the union cards already signed by pilots were valid.

The CIRB ruled that the ballot could go ahead, with 1,261 of WestJet's pilots voting to whether to certify. 

The vote begins on July 22 and lasts until Aug. 5, with the results being released soon after voting ends.