WestJet pilots apply for union certification
Push for certification at airline comes as rival enjoys labour peace
It’s starting to feel a lot like Air Canada over at WestJet Airlines Ltd. — or maybe it’s the other way around.
For years, the stereotype was that WestJet’s nonunionized workforce was happy and engaged, telling bad jokes during flights and living up to the familiar slogan, “owners care.”
Meanwhile, over at Air Canada, the unionized employees seemed bitter, often threatening to strike if their demands weren’t met.
What a difference a few years makes.
On Monday, a group of WestJet pilots applied to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board for union certification.
If the application is successful, the group — calling itself the WestJet Professional Pilots Association — will hold a confidential vote asking all of the airline’s pilots to support it.
It isn’t the first time WestJet employees have tried to unionize, but it is the first time the effort has got this close to reality.
Meanwhile, labour relations at Air Canada appear to have improved markedly with pilots ratifying an unprecedented 10-year contract last fall.
Ben Cherniavsky, an analyst who follows both companies for Raymond James, attributes this shift to the “dramatic change” undertaken by WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky over the past five years.
“Although the brand is still largely emblematic of a ‘caring’ airline with low costs and value prices, the model has evolved into much more of a full network carrier,” Cherniavsky wrote in a recent analysis.
WestJet investors, however, don’t seem perturbed by the prospect of unionization.
The stock fell less than one per cent on Monday, when the pilots announced their application for certification, and closed Friday at $26.36, down 1.42 per cent. Cherniavsky has a $31 price target for the stock and a market-perform rating.
Perhaps most importantly from a cost perspective, WestJet has branched out from flying one type of aircraft — the Boeing 737 — to three, with the addition of Q400 turboprops for its Encore regional airline and Boeing 767s for overseas operations beginning this winter.
The airline has also added premium Plus seating and, much to the chagrin of passengers, a baggage fee. These changes have been great for shareholders, but less so for employees, Cherniavsky wrote.
“As the airline has become more complex, so too have the daily tasks that its people must perform,” Cherniavsky said.
“Plus cabins and bag fees, for example, have turned flight attendants into ‘seat and bag cops,’ while the introduction of multiple aircraft can create tension among pilots (who flies what where?). In our view, protracted labour contract negotiations and a recent push for unionization are both manifestations of this cultural strain.”
However, the cost implications of unionization aren’t as dramatic as they would have been in the past.
For years, WestJet touted its 30-per-cent cost advantage over Air Canada, part of which came from its cheaper, younger, non-unionized workforce. But as the airline nears its 20th anniversary, its workforce has inevitably got more expensive as it gains seniority.
“That seniority advantage that WestJet once had on Air Canada has disappeared,” said Fred Lazar, an economist at York University’s Schulich School of Business who has studied the airline industry extensively.
Air Canada is also narrowing the gap on its end through a major, multi-year cost-cutting effort. In the first quarter, the cost difference between the two airlines had shrunk to 24 per cent and is expected to continue to fall.
While the absence of unions may not have much impact on salaries or benefits at WestJet, it does mean the workforce is more flexible than Air Canada’s, which can have an indirect impact on costs.
“What the unions do — and this is a problem that Air Canada and all airlines with unionized pilots face — is tighten up those work rules, reduce the flexibility for employees and reduce the hours that pilots will fly,” Lazar said in an interview.
“That will inflate your costs and, more importantly, increase operational complexity.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the pilots’ unionization push will be successful. The WestJet Professional Pilots Association needed more than 40 per cent of pilots to sign union cards in order to apply for certification, a level it said it “comfortably exceeds.” But the confidential vote that would follow requires majority support to form the union, and this may not be forthcoming, said David Tyerman, analyst at Canaccord Genuity.
“WestJet has done some rather unusual things from the employee standpoint that are fairly forwardlooking,” Tyerman said in an interview.
The airline’s pilots and flight attendants already have associations that represent their interests, and management bargains with them as if they’re protounions.
The airline also made sure to solicit employee feedback before launching Encore in 2013, Tyerman said.
“They’ve gone down this road a little bit already, so it may be less dramatic than a situation where you have a company and its workers at loggerheads,” he said.
Tyerman has a $33 price target for West Jet and a buy rating.
“Besides, there are downsides to (unionization). You’re going to have to pay dues, and do you really want to pay dues?”
Whatever happens, it’s clear that WestJet has come “to a defining crossroad for its culture,” Cherniavsky said.
“Not that a pilots’ union would spell the end of the airline’s long-term success (WestJet still boasts a huge cost advantage over its competition), but we would definitely consider it to be a negative development and a notable setback to management’s ambitious agenda for change.”