Varcoe: WestJet pushes back as five union drives underway
Since it first lifted off in 1996 with three aircraft and 220 employees, WestJet Airlines has identified itself as a different kind of company.
The Calgary-based airline has been a scrappy upstart from the beginning, both friendly and feisty, and it’s long touted the slogan, “Owners Care.”
About 83 per cent of staff own stock through an employee purchase program and workers receive profit-sharing payments. Growing into the second-largest airline in the country, it was also one of the largest businesses in Canada without a union.
But no longer.
After several unsuccessful attempts by various labour groups to organize employees, 62 per cent of more than 1,400 WestJet pilots agreed in May to join the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA).
Now, other unions, including Unifor and CUPE, are hoping to land their own successful certification campaigns to represent workers such as flight attendants, customer service agents and aircraft maintenance engineers.
“Other unions are opportunistically trying to grow their business by targeting WestJetters,” CEO Gregg Saretsky wrote in an e-mail to staff last week.
“As I look at what we want for WestJetters — not just employees, but as owners of this business we are running together — what concerns me most is that the claims these unions are making are totally inaccurate. They clearly don’t understand our business.”
One thing everyone seems to understand is the business environment is changing.
WestJet is busy expanding both at home and abroad.
The company now has 12,000 employees, a $3-billion market cap, and it has announced plans to launch an ultra-low-cost carrier and acquire wide-body planes to extend its international reach.
This is unfolding while air traffic heats up and the economy improves in Western Canada, including on its home turf in Alberta.
On Thursday, WestJet announced it flew a record 5.9 million customers during the March-to-June period, up 11.5 per cent year over year. Its stock closed Friday at $25.79 a share.
A report by AltaCorp Capital analyst Chris Murray said he expects to see continued improvement in demand as the economy in the West picks up, with indications of “a very busy summer travel season.”
There’s obviously a whirlwind of change in the air, with currents moving in many directions.
WestJet’s no-frills carrier is expected to be launched later this year, competing for cost-conscious travellers by offering discount fares, with customers able to pay extra for items such as carry-on bags.
In May, WestJet announced plans to acquire 10 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, with an option for another 10, as it expands its reach into the long-haul segment of the market.
Saretsky told the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade last month that WestJet has asked for regulatory approval to launch non-stop service to China.
The company is pursuing a number of aggressive strategies simultaneously, which is likely creating uncertainty for some staff, Murray said in an interview.
“It’s very different trying to operate in an environment of that size than when you were a couple-hundred people trying to fly a couple old (Boeing) 737s between Calgary and Vancouver,” the analyst added.
“The airline itself has certainly grown and matured — and that’s where … the legacy issues really have sort of caught up with it.”
Unions trying to organize WestJet workers say they’ve been approached by employees in recent months who feel unsure about these changes, along with other issues.
But the successful bid by the pilots this spring has obviously inspired new campaigns.
“It’s like anything else, if they can do it why can’t we? This was always a tough nut to crack in the aviation industry,” said Bill Trbovich of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which is trying to organize WestJet’s service agents and maintenance engineers.
Just three years ago, the Canadian Union of Public Employees unsuccessfully tried to organize flight attendants — after failing in 2006 as well — but union spokesman Hugh Pouliot believes the situation has changed.
“People weren’t ready to do it (then). This time around, conditions are different,” he said, adding the shift to the ultra-low-cost carrier is creating anxiety among some workers CUPE has spoken with recently.
Unifor, which is trying to organize customer service representatives and call centre staff, said conditions have changed as the Calgary-based business has become a large corporation.
“WestJet has marketed themselves coming out of the starting blocks as a different kind of company,” said John Aman of Unifor. “It’s a different company now.”
In his email, Saretsky emphasized the cost of potential union dues for employees, noting how the company’s staff could represent almost $17 million in new revenue for the unions. He stressed certification would get in the way of communications and everyone working together.
WestJet spokesperson Lauren Stewart said the airline is trying to ensure employees get all of the facts.
“We continue to believe that employees and leadership work best together using a model that has been built by WestJet employees for WestJet employees,” she said in an email.
As the airline keeps growing, it’s only natural that WestJet’s unique culture will evolve.
The true measure of how much the company has changed — at least in the eyes of its employees — is about to get another test.
Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.