By Samantha Ponting and Andrew Stevens
The WPFAA is an in-house representative organization seeking union certification under the Canada Labour Code. It has hundreds of members, and is “organized to empower the flight attendants at WestJet to advocate for industry standard expectations within our workplace,” says the WPFAA.
WestJet has ballooned into a hugely profitable corporation since its founding in 1996. The airline claims to be “one the most profitable airlines in North America,” with total revenue increasing 3.5 per cent last year to $1.045 billion. Meanwhile, flight attendants are facing serious concerns surrounding such issues as fatigue and length of crew rest.
While WestJet flight attendants in the past have sought to form representation through the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), representatives of the WPFAA have accused CUPE of being a “large corporate union,” despite CUPE’s relatively reputable record of respecting locals’ autonomy. Still, the WPFAA says WestJet flight attendants are not ready for a “big box union” like CUPE. CUPE currently represents thousands of flight attendants employed by WestJet’s main competitor, Air Canada.
The nature of labour-management relations at WestJet, representatives from the WPFAA say, is giving rise to the need for unionization. In 1999, a Pro-Active Communications Team (PACT) was created to manage labour relations at the company. According to its website, PACT is a “non-union employee representation organization,” which, it states, is elected by employees.
However, the WPFAA says PACT is a business unit of WestJet, and PACT does not collectively bargain contract on behalf of workers. Such organizations have historically been used by employers to distract from truly autonomous, meaningful forms of representation. And, as WestJet grows, the PACT is increasingly seen by employees as failing to adequately represent the needs of workers.
RankandFile.ca interviewed representatives of the WPFAA to explore its current battle to unionize workers, under the condition of anonymity. The association expressed fear that members could face workplace repercussions in the absence of formalized job security. The following is an edited version of this interview.
What kind of representation currently exists at WestJet?
There is currently no recognized form of representation at WestJet. Every employee has signed an individual contract with the company.
If an employee has an issue with their work rules, or have been treated in a way that would be deemed inappropriate or unfair, the employee can submit a complaint to their PACT subgroup association, but these subgroups (for example, the flight attendants have the Flight Attendant Association Board or FAAB) are extensions of PACT, which is a business unit of WestJet. For true representation, each employee would be responsible to provide and pay for their own legal counsel.
Why have WestJet flight attendants turned to unionization in recent years?
Many flight attendants still feel that unionization is not the answer – that our issues can be solved by just having a conversation with management. For those who support the WPFAA, we feel that the company is now too large and our department too diverse to expect that our work rules can be written and signed off with a “wink and a handshake.”
We recognize that at one time in the past, WestJet was the “little airline that could,” and every employee had a stake at making the airline successful, to the point where standards within the industry were overlooked in order to keep the operation low-cost and low-fare.
Employee/management/executive relations have been very informal for nearly two decades.
Now that we are a department of 3000 flight attendants in a company of 12000 employees, dispersed across the country in three different bases, and flying different aircraft types to destinations around the globe, it is time that our work rules became more formalized to reflect the position WestJet has achieved within the global marketplace.
What are the workplace issues facing flight attendants?
The issues that we as flight attendants are facing at the current time is a lack of accountability, transparency, and trust within our department. Our informal cabin crew agreement was passed by a very low margin in June of 2015. We were told at that time that material changes to the “contract” would have to be voted upon, yet as of Jan. 1, 2016, material changes will take place and there has been no vote held.
We were told that our agreement would be “legally binding,” and essentially it is. It is legally binding on the flight attendants, but not the company.
These material changes that will take place prove without a shadow of a doubt, that the company can change our work rules at any time and for any reason that is deemed operationally required.
They can also decide not to change things. One of the key issues that was to be addressed in the agreement was the length of crew rest and duty days. Flight attendants are submitting more and more reports of fatigue issues when on the road.
We were told that Transport Canada was reviewing recommendations for cabin crew (flight attendants’) rest and duty requirements and when the recommendations were made, FAAB and WestJet would then make the appropriate changes.
When Transport Canada finally did release their report, they did not include cabin crew in their recommendations, therefore, FAAB and WestJet made no changes to our crew rest and length of duty day. Our crews are still calling in sick and fatigued due to the lack of attention being paid to our work schedules.
Our people, and especially their health and well-being, are more important than profits. The WPFAA remember the time when WestJet took care of the people, who took care of the guests, who then took care of the business. It is for this reason that the flight attendants are at the top of the WPFAA organizational chart.
WestJet pilots voted against unionization. What has this meant for the WPFAA and its supporters?
The pilots’ vote against unionization did affect our drive, but we don’t believe the adverse effects will be lasting. Flight attendants definitely look towards pilots for direction. It’s part of our job.
Immediately after the vote, we did see a slow down of new members. After a three month period, and when the WPPA (WestJet Professional Pilot Association) made the difficult decision to halt their drive and allow ALPA (Airline Pilots’ Association) to pick up where the WPPA left off, the flight attendants took notice and realized that if the WPFAA are not successful, then the next step would be a large union like CUPE aggressively campaigning for flight attendants at WestJet to join their union.
The WPFAA exist because WestJet’s flight attendants are not ready for a “big box” union like CUPE. With the lack of accountability and transparency in our current structure, and the threat of a large corporate union approaching, we have seen a surge in popularity for the WPFAA.
Our flight attendants (FAs) have not had any negative experiences with CUPE, organizing or otherwise. The FAs who were attempting to organize the WJ FAs under the CUPE banner are some of the best at our airline and have always been incredibly understanding and respectful of the wishes of the flight attendant group.
Concerns which we have would be that if others are being represented by the union at large that our group would simply be a part of a bigger picture. The WPFAA intends to make our flight attendants the entire picture with no influence from other organized groups affecting how we represent our flight attendants.
We believe that it is imperative that every dollar spent in dues remain in our organization to be used solely for WJ flight attendants.
Why have WestJet flight attendants looked to CUPE for assistance?
In the past, CUPE was contacted by WestJet flight attendants because CUPE represents the Air Canada flight attendants as well as the flight attendants at several of Canada’s smaller airlines. CUPE seemed to be the best option as they represent most of the flight attendants in Canada. However, the founders of the WPFAA feel that CUPE is too daunting of a choice for the WestJet flight attendants.
Recent changes to federal regulations have allowed airlines to reduce the number of flight attendants required to staff a flight. What is the WPFAA’s position on this development?
The recent change from one flight attendant per 40 guests to one per 50 seats is not a positive change for flight attendant work conditions, safety or well-being. It is a change that the airlines were in favour of because it saves money.
Most of the unions that represent flight attendants in Canada (such as CUPE) fought against that change. Taking a flight attendant off of an aircraft not only affects guest service, but also guest safety. Fewer flight attendants onboard means fewer safety professionals to help in a crisis.
For many years before the change we were told that 1:50 is an international industry standard. We understand that to be true, however, international aviation regulatory bodies also have stricter rules related to length of duty day and crew rest.
At WestJet we have fewer flight attendants taking care of the same amount of guests, yet we saw no changes to the maximum length of our duty day or to the minimum length of our crew rest. Essentially, we are working harder for the same pay, and expected to operate the same length of duty days, with the same amount of crew rest. The 1:50 benefits the airlines’ profit margins, not the flight attendants or the guests.
Is the WPFAA working with fellow flight attendants at other major airlines like Air Canada?
In the years since the WPFAA was established, we have spoken to several airline representative organizations including the AFA (Association of Flight Attendants), the TWU (Transport Workers Union), and the CFAU (Canadian Flight Attendant Union). We now recognize that the CFAU (the union that represents the Jazz flight attendants) are the union that we should look to as our example.
They too are an internal organization. They represent only the Jazz flight attendants. Their dues are collected and used for the benefit of only the Jazz flight attendants. The WPFAA are not looking to become a local of the CFAU, and the CFAU does not want to join forces with the WPFAA.
We merely want to work together to see the best work conditions for all of Canada’s flight attendants. What happens within the Canadian aviation industry affects every flight attendant, not just at WestJet, but at every airline. All eyes are currently on us.
What has been management’s response to the certification drive?
It would be difficult to answer that question without negatively affecting the public’s image of WestJet as a company. To put it simply, management is not in favour of certification.
Certification would mean a loss of absolute control; something they are not willing to give up without a fight. Certification would also mean the company would have to bargain in good faith, something they don’t currently have to do.
What are some of the major barriers to unionizing?
Our flight attendants are spread from coast to coast across three bases in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. Educating the flight attendants on their options is our biggest barrier.
We do not have access to the same communication tools (annual training classes, company wide e-mail etc.) as management, so the message to fear unions can be spread further than can our message: always question your leaders, learn to think critically so that you do not have to accept a rhetoric with blind faith, and educate yourself so that you can make an informed decision.