08/05/2015 09:23 EDT

WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky 'Pleased' Pilots Rejected Unionization

CALGARY — Pilots at WestJet, the Calgary-based airline that has prided itself on fostering an employee-friendly corporate culture, have rejected a bid to form the company's first union.

The WestJet Professional Pilots Association said Wednesday on its Facebook page that 684 of 1,247 pilots - about 55 per cent of those who cast ballots over a two-week period - rejected unionization.

The association said it is disappointed with the result and hopes the process will lead to constructive dialogue between pilots and WestJet leadership going forward. The group had said it was time the company's pilots are represented through a certified union as WestJet continues to expand.

WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky welcomed the outcome.

"We are pleased that the majority of our pilots who voted have voted against union representation," he said in a statement.

"Our model of co-operation and employee representation through the WestJet Pilots' Association has allowed for the continued success of our pilots and our airline. Despite the positive outcome, there is continued work that needs to take place to better understand some of the issues for our pilot group and we can now turn our efforts to that goal."

WestJet had said it believes the fact that it has a non-union workforce gives it a competitive advantage, adding that collective bargaining would have led to service disruptions and increased labour costs.

The WestJet Professional Pilots Association cited the company's recent growth in recent years as a motivating factor behind the unionization bid. The airline has opened new offices in Toronto and Vancouver while expanding its routes, including its first trans-Atlantic flights last year.

The Canadian Industrial Relations Board has been running the vote but says it will not be able to release official results until its board approves them. There is no indication when that could be.

To trigger the vote, the WestJet Professional Pilots Association had to show more than 40 per cent of pilots supported the association through membership cards.

The unionization drive among pilots wasn't the only one facing WestJet.

The WestJet Professional Flight Attendants Association is working to reach the 40 per cent membership threshold to launch a vote on whether flight attendants can unionize.

Jason Foster, a labour relations expert at Athabasca University, said it was always going to be an uphill battle for unionization within WestJet and that Wednesday's results don't bode well for the flight attendants who want to unionize.

"WestJet management, I think we could say, has a fairly strong anti-union animus,'' Foster said. "They probably took what lengths they could to make sure that there isn't one."

The union drive was also made more difficult because WestJet's employees are spread out over the country, he added.

"It's not like one big factory."

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