WestJet Airlines President & CEO Gregg Saretsky holds a model of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner after the purchase of this airplane was announced at the company’s annual general meeting in Calgary, Alta. on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougalTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal

Push is on to unionize WestJet flight attendants

CALGARY — A recent successful bid to unionize WestJet (TSX:WJA) pilots has prompted a push to organize flight attendants at the airline.

The airline, Canada’s second-largest, has long prided itself on its relationship with its employees, whom it refers to as co-owners. Among the benefits offered to WestJet staff are a company-matched share purchase plan.

But in recent weeks, WestJet has found itself the target of two unions wanting to represent its 3,000 flight attendants.

The WestJet Professional Flight Attendants Association (WPFAA) says it has ramped up efforts, while the Canadian Union of Public Employees says it’s considering launching its own campaign to unionize flight attendants.

Daniel Kufuor, interim treasurer at the WPFAA, said when the airline’s pilots voted last month to join the Air Line Pilots Association, International, that was a boost.

“It is seen … as the first domino to fall,” said Kufuor, a former WestJet flight attendant whose dismissal is now the subject of a wrongful termination lawsuit.

He said WPFAA has about 1,200 union cards signed and needs some 200 more to reach the 40 per cent threshold to trigger a union vote, but the numbers keep shifting as the six-month cards expire and WestJet adds flight attendants.

CUPE, which already represents about 10,000 flight attendants in Canada, most of which with Air Canada, is now also considering a new unionization campaign at WestJet after past attempts in 2006 and 2013 failed.

Hugh Pouliot, a spokesman for CUPE, said they’re still in planning stages and have been in discussions with flight attendants, but haven’t made a formal decision yet.

“People have been talking to us about unionizing, especially now that ALPA has unionized the pilots,” said Pouliot.

When the pilots organized, CEO Gregg Saretsky said he was disappointed but added he would work with the new union.

“WestJet believes that management and employees work best together through open and direct dialogue,” company spokeswoman Lauren Stewart said in an email.

“This is the hallmark of our success over 20 years.”

The unionization efforts come as WestJet embarks on some of its most ambitious expansion plans since it was founded in 1996. It has set out to launch both an ultra-low cost carrier and expand internationally.

Raymond James analyst Ben Cherniavsky said such growth, as well as other initiatives such as new baggage fees and its recently established flights to London, are helping drive the push towards unionization.

Cherniavsky said the successful unionization, while not surprising, will likely result in higher costs for WestJet.

“Although it is unfair to conclude that the unionization of WestJet’s pilots means that its culture is ‘broken,’ there is no question that labour relations have become more complicated for the company,” he said in a note to clients.

The airline will continue to talk with employees as its expansion plans continue, Stewart said.

“We are focused on our expansions plans and will work with our employees to ensure they are heard as we introduce these exciting new initiatives.”


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