WestJet pilots vote by 62 per cent to form union

CALGARY — The Air Line Pilots Association, International says more than 1,400 WestJet pilots have voted 62 per cent in favour of forming the first union at Canada’s second-largest airline.

The vote makes the ALPA, which bills itself as the world’s largest pilot union representing 55,000 pilots, the exclusive bargaining agent for WestJet pilots.

“We look forward to putting ALPA’s vast resources to work to help the WestJet pilots reach their first contract,” said Dan Adamus, president of ALPA Canada, in a statement.

WestJet chief executive Gregg Saretsky said that the airline (TSX:WJA) is disappointed with the outcome of the vote, but will now focus on engaging in constructive dialogue with the ALPA.

The company, which has long prided itself on being union-free and considers it a competitive advantage, saw its share price drop 4.2 per cent to close at $21.98.

Rob McFadyen, a member of the WestJet ALPA Organizing Committee, stated that the vote was about ensuring support in issues like health, retirement, fatigue, safety, family support and legal protection.

Jason Foster, a labour relations expert at Athabasca University, said Friday’s result shows a clear change of atmosphere among the pilots at WestJet from 2015, when only 45 per cent of pilots voted for unionization.

“This is a significant statement,” said Foster. “It’s an indication how workers in the airline industry are reacting to the turmoil and constant change that we’re seeing in the industry these days.”

He said WestJet’s move both into the ultra-low cost carrier segment, as well as trying to take on Air Canada’s international luxury travel as it responds to competition, has likely put a strain on relations.

Foster said while the union certification is a big step, there’s still a lot of work ahead for the pilots.

“Now they’re going to have to sit down and negotiate a collective agreement with WestJet, and that won’t necessarily be pretty. I imagine that WestJet will come to the table driving very hard.”

Karl Moore, a management expert at McGill University and former airline consultant, said that unionization was likely the result of significant growth from WestJet’s humble beginnings 21 years ago, with it now counting more than 12,000 employees.

“It’s lost that kind of feisty upstart David and Goliath feeling,” said Moore.

He said relations with employees, which WestJet has referred to as co-owners of the airline, could become more strained under a union.

“With a union you at times become more at loggerheads as opposed to partners working together to have great success,” said Moore.

He also expects to see more union drives as a result of the pilot’s successful drive.

“Once the pilots are, certainly the flight attendants and mechanics and all would take a more serious look at it,” he said.

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