Flight dispatchers at WestJet, a Calgary-based airline, have applied to join the Canadian Airline Dispatchers Association (CALDA). They join pilots and other staff at the company who have decided to unionize over the past year and a half.

Since 2017, workers at WestJet have been pushing for unionization more aggressively than ever before. They hope the union will help win them mandatory breaks, health benefits, improved safety measures, improved wages, and a system for recognizing seniority.

From WestJet CUPE website

It is no coincidence that these union drives are occuring now.

In a desperate scramble to boost profits, WestJet launched its ultra low-cost Swoop airline in June of this year. WestJet pilots with more experience and who are paid higher wages would be excluded from flying Swoop as a way for WestJet to maximize profits through a two-tier wage system.

Discontent reached a boiling point when 61.5% of WestJet pilots voted to join the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) in May 2017. Pilots demanded mandatory rest between flights, health and retirement benefits, improved safety measures, family support, and legal protection. An overwhelming majority of WestJet Encore (the company’s regional carrier) pilots followed suit and voted to join the union in the following months.

After negotiations with WestJet reached a standstill, pilots voted 91% in favour of strike action this past May. After the vote, WestJet agreed to allow unionized pilots to fly Swoop operated flights, but specifics on wages and benefits were to be determined at a later date.

WestJet flight attendants, not including WestJet Encore attendants, rode the wave of unionization in July after voting to join the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Flight attendants at WestJet are only paid for the time they spend in the air, and not the time spent at the airport before and after flights. On a flight between Edmonton and Calgary, for example, attendants will only be paid for the hour they spend in the air, and not the three hours they may spend in the airport pre- and post-flight. The unionized flight attendants are now fighting to eliminate this blatantly unethical, and arguably illegal, practice.

The response from WestJet has been, unsurprisingly, negative. WestJet has historically prided itself on being union-free, describing its employees as “owners.” Perhaps someone should lend the airline a dictionary, since they obviously do not know the meaning of the word! In response to the pilots’ union vote, WestJet said they were “disappointed” and that unionizing would negatively impact the company's culture and financial situation.

Could WestJet be disappointed that their employees - pardon me, owners - are taking the initiative to improve guest and staff safety? Perhaps the bosses are more disappointed at the prospect of their cushy gig coming to an end.

Former CEO Gregg Saretsky even went so far as to warn workers that unionizing was not in their best interest through an email sent to all staff, saying the move would only result in shrinking pay cheques.

Mark Hancock, National President of CUPE, says scare tactics like these are used to intimidate workers and prevent unionization at all costs. WestJet claims to provide a friendly environment where workers can joke with guests and feel comfortable. However, this same company threatens to crush any organization that would allow those same workers to openly share concerns and demand what they want from their workplace.

It is clear WestJet does not value the physical or mental health of their employees. It is also clear that WestJet is happy to put customers at risk so they can squeeze as much profit as possible out of every tired, overworked, lowly paid, miserable crew member.

Airline workers continue to fight tooth and nail for health and safety to be put before profit. Belonging to a union helps to make this possible.

Following the threat of a pilot strike, shares in WestJet dropped 4.2%. Soon after, the company experienced its first quarterly loss in thirteen years. According to WestJet Chief Financial Officer Harry Taylor, customers cancelling flights in anticipation of a strike cost WestJet tens of millions of dollars in profit. This explains why, after eight long months of negotiations with the pilots, WestJet was so quick to reach an agreement. Workers get the best results when they hit the capitalists where it hurts them most: their moneybags.

These actions have emboldened the non-unionized staff at WestJet. They may themselves consider joining a union now that their co-workers have shown the way forward. This will help to create an environment where workers actually feel comfortable to come forward when issues arise, instead of remaining silent for fear of losing their jobs. More and more workers are learning that this is what unionization has to offer, and it sounds good.

As WestJet employees continue their struggle for improved safety, working conditions, and wages, the labour movement must offer solidarity and support. Workers and consumers deserve to have their safety put before profits, and WestJet workers are setting an example for the sector. The only way to defeat profit-driven, corner-cutting companies is by standing with our fellow workers.

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