WestJet Airlines has always prided itself on being a different kind of airline.
But the Calgary-based carrier is suddenly facing turbulence as it struggles to reach agreements with flight attendants and pilots amid separate unionization drives.
WestJet’s 2,600 flight attendants were allowed to vote for the first time on a proposed agreement that sets out pay and work rules. They rejected it Monday, with 57 per cent voting against the deal. Turnout was high, with 90 per cent of members casting ballots.
“We were surprised. We felt we had negotiated the majority of the flight attendants’ wants,” said Anthony Pascale, chair of the flight attendants association board. “This is a bump in the road.”
The rejection is not expected to have any direct impact on service, given that the airline’s workers are not unionized.
Pascale refused to speculate on the reasons for the rejection, saying a survey is being circulated over the next week. “We will compile all the data, and then we will regroup and see what comes of it,” he said.
The agreement was first announced in October, after six months of negotiations. Similarly, WestJet’s pilots are set to vote on a new agreement in the coming weeks, after they rejected a proposal a year ago.
Tyler Matheson, WestJet’s vice-president of inflight, said the “no” vote among flight attendants was a disappointment, but added that the company will try to reach an agreement at the negotiating table. If not, then the parties can consider mediation or binding arbitration.
As WestJet continues to expand, with new regional airline Encore and plans to fly wide-body aircraft next year, Matheson said the airline wanted to formalize the way decisions are made “so our flight attendants get their fingerprints on decisions we are making that impact them,” he said.
Two unionization drives are underway for the company’s flight attendants. One group, started by eight flight attendants, calls itself the WestJet Professional Flight Attendants Association.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents flight attendants at other airlines including Air Canada, has also made several attempts to sign up WestJet’s flight attendants.
A group calling itself the WestJet Professional Pilots Association also has efforts underway to organize the company’s 1,300 pilots.
York University business professor Fred Lazar noted that with 57 per cent of flight attendants voting against the agreement, it’s not impossible for the company to win over employees.
“You don’t have to offer much more to get a majority supporting it,” he said. “If it were 75 per cent plus, that indicates there’s a problem.”
Lazar added that while WestJet, which has been enjoying strong profits, touts its profit-sharing program with employees, he suspects payouts are not that large on an individual basis. That may result is some employee discontent.
Last Friday, WestJet had its semi-annual profit sharing day, where $23 million were paid out to employees. For flight attendants, payouts depend on hours worked, so the company could not provide an average.
Matheson said that airline has always had a target on its back from those trying to unionize. “Regardless, if this (agreement) was voted in, we would still have that threat,” he said. “As one of the only airlines out there that is non-union, it becomes that much more enticing for a union to come in.”