by Amanda Stephenson - Calgary Sun
WestJet Airlines — the Calgary-based carrier that has made non-unionization part of its corporate brand for more than 20 years — is set to become a union shop.
In a secret ballot, WestJet pilots voted 62 per cent in favour of joining the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA), a large international union that represents pilots at 32 airlines across North America, including Air Transat and Jazz Aviation.
WestJet's shares fell four per cent to close Friday at $21.98 each as the airline prepared for eventual negotiations of the union's first collective agreement for more than 1,400 pilots.
Chief executive Gregg Saretsky – who vowed in December to “go down fighting” to prevent unionization at WestJet – said in a statement Friday he was disappointed with the vote, “but we are dedicated to moving forward as a team.”
"We will now focus on engaging in constructive dialogue with ALPA and concentrate on the continued success of the organization for guests, employees and shareholders," Saretsky said.
WestJet has been non-unionized since its first flight in 1996, and has long prided itself on a positive corporate culture and feel-good workplace environment. Because of its employee share purchase program, most WestJet employees own stock in the airline — and the company makes regular use of the slogan "Owners Care" to differentiate itself from its competition, particularly Air Canada.
Capt. Rob McFadyen, a WestJet pilot and a member of the ALPA organizing committee, said in a statement that pilots want protections for health, retirement, fatigue, safety and legal issues, and they will seek that support through their new union.
As Canada's second largest airline, WestJet has long been an appealing target for unions, who have launched several failed campaigns over the decades. But employee unrest at the company has intensified over the past four years — a period that has been marked by rapid expansion at WestJet. Since 2013, WestJet has launched a separate regional airline, introduced a new premium economy seating category, and made its first foray into Europe.
In recent weeks, WestJet has strayed even farther from its roots as a low-cost carrier with a simple business model. The airline has said it will move ahead with its international expansion plans by purchasing at least 10 Boeing Dreamliners, with options for an additional 10, allowing the carrier to reach new destinations in Asia, South America, and Europe.
In April, the airline announced it would launch a no-frills carrier to serve "price sensitive" travellers before the end of the year, a move some analysts have suggested may be creating unease among pilots concerned about the potential impact on wages and working conditions.
The vote appears to be a "logical response" to the push for no-frills air service and other trends in the industry that deal with controlling costs, said David Camfield, an associate professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba.
"Those kinds of changes will have negative effects for pilots around scheduling, job security, potentially pay," Camfield said.
"This degree of uncertainty and the prospect that there will be a deterioration of working conditions is something that would be on the minds of many pilots."
WestJet said it doesn't know what impact the unionization vote would have on the airline's ambitions for ultra-low-cost service, but it was forging ahead with its purchase of wide-bodied planes.
Chris Murray, an analyst at AltaCorp Capital, said the vote creates new uncertainty about WestJet's expansion plans, given that pilots must sign off on them. The airline must now gain that approval with an organized union that will be seeking collective bargaining negotiations, which could create additional delays, Murray said.
"It may also change their perspective on what the cost profile would look like, and change their minds in perhaps going forward with some of these initiatives," he said.
Saretsky has said repeatedly that he remains convinced unionization would harm the relationship the airline currently has with it employees, and create a system of bureaucracy that would get in the way of direct conversations between management and staff.
The union is now turning its focus to a membership drive and establishing pilot representatives in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver, laying the foundation for a new executive council and negotiations for the first collective agreement.
WestJet said the vote does not affect pilots who fly for its regional airline Encore.