Monday, August 10, 2015

WestJet pilots reject union representation

Pilots at Calgary-based WestJet Airlines rejected union representation this week, ensuring Canada’s second-largest carrier will remain union-free, at least for now.
Of the 1,247 pilots participating, roughly 55% said yes, while 45% said no, the WestJet Professional Pilots Association announced in an online post. The company will retain its informal relationship with a different group, the WestJet Pilots’ Association.

“Our model of cooperation and employee representation through the WestJet Pilots’ Association has allowed for the continued success of our pilots and our airline,” CEO Gregg Saretsky said.

Despite discontent among some pilots, there were signs the union faced a difficult challenge. The association rushed to gather enough signature cards before June 16, when Canada changed its rules for union representation for some federally regulated industries. Prior to that date, unions at companies like WestJet could form if more than 50% of employees signed cards endorsing the union. After June 16, however, a secret ballot was required.

The union had been trying to meet the June 16 deadline to avoid a vote. But the association did not gather enough signatures to make the union automatic, so the rule change was not an issue. At the time, the union only said that it had “comfortably” exceeded the 40% threshold, enough for a secret-ballot vote.

Significant victory

The victory is significant for WestJet, which has been more effective than its peers in fending off union challenges. The company places an emphasis on culture, and it has a significant profit-sharing program for employees.

However, as WestJet has grown, especially in the past two years, fissures have begun to appear. Some employees have complained they can no longer have a direct relationship with company executives.

Recently, the airline has changed its model significantly. First, WestJet—which previously only had a crew base in Calgary, Canada—added Toronto and Vancouver bases last year, forcing some employees to move. Second, WestJet created a wholly owned subsidiary flying Bombardier Q400 turboprops, called WestJet Encore. Third, WestJet is now taking delivery of four used Boeing 767s that it will first fly to Hawaii and later expects to fly on long-haul international routes.

“Our airline is undergoing immense change,” union leaders wrote on their website before the vote. “We need to be properly equipped to deal with mergers, new equipment, a growing regional airline and any other changes which are beyond our control as pilots.”

In a June 25 research note, Raymond James analyst Ben Cherniavsky noted that the airline was having some “cultural strain” as a result of recent changes to its model. “This, in our view, is not just a matter of employees longing for the ‘good old days,’ though there is likely some of that element in play,” he said. Cherniavsky argued that, as the carrier’s model has become more complex, employees have been asked to do more-complicated jobs, both on the ground and in the air.

“The introduction of multiple aircraft can create tension among pilots,” Cherniavsky said. “Who flies what where?”

(Brian Sumers - ATWOnline News)

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