Pilots shoot down Westjet mystique as a ‘fun place to work’


150 pilots stood shoulder to shoulder in a demonstration of solidarity outside a Westjet shareholders meeting in Calgary May 8

THE WESTJET MYSTIQUE IS GOING DOWN IN FLAMES. Their claim to being a workers’ paradise is dead. Their pilots are ready to strike. Their flight attendants and ticket agents are battling hard with the company to win themselves union representation. None of this fits the Westjet mystique..

Westjet was sold to us as the “magic kingdom” of the airline industry. It was sold as a fun place to work. A workers’ paradise where the very idea of unions would just seem foolish.

WestJet quickly earned its fun reputation: pilots would crack jokes from the cockpit, staff would board passengers based on the colour of their socks, they gave tickets to anyone named Hamilton on arrival in that city. It was all spun out as a result of a supposed special worker/boss relationship at Westjet due to an Employee Share Purchase Plan. And we fell for it. It was quirky and corny and Canadian.

We fell for the Westjet “Owners Care” TV ads that told us all the workers were part-owners, so they would naturally work extra hard to take care of us. The working harder part was true. The part-owner part was bullshit. But few said so.

Take Rick Mercer, for example. He made it look like what the Westjet ads were saying was true. Rick did one of his patented, happy-go-lightly pieces on his show in 2010 to prove it. Rick showed us a Westjet that really was the spunky little upstart airline from Calgary that made flying so much fun for us and their workers. It suited us to believe it. Almost everybody did—even the workers!

It was such a nice story. Almost everybody wanted to believe that Westjet was different. But it wasn’t and isn’t. The Westjet mystique was all a made up story concocted to sell airline tickets.

A corporate culture like any other

The famous “Owners Care” campaign, for example, was an accident. It had nothing to do with a deep corporate culture that desired to share the Westjet wealth with its workers. It came out of desperation.

Westjet had spent a bundle in 2005 on an ad campaign that never got off the ground. They wanted to yank the ads but had nothing to replace them with. They hit on the idea of selling workers as part-owners by accident. It was the result of a random offhand remark. They had no better idea, so they went with it.

The idea that the existence of an Employee Share Purchase Plan turns workers into part-owners is absurd. Particularly in a company where wage levels are so low that finding money to pay the rent is a constant problem—never mind put a little something aside to buy shares and become an “owner.”

Westjet is not a “mom and pop” operation. It has just over 11,000 employees with 114 million shares outstanding. It is a major corporation like any other major corporation. It has worked hard to make us think it isn’t—but it is. Nobody knows this better than the folks who work there.

Jobs swooped away

Westjet pilots would rather fly than fight. But Westjet management is not making it easy.

The company has dragged out negotiations for a first contract with the pilots since last fall. To make matters worse, Westjet plans to hire 200 foreign pilots, at lower wages, to launch Swoop, an ultra-low cost airline.

One industry analyst noted: “A lot of the pilots are saying, ‘Hang on! You’re actually displacing WestJet routes and using WestJet planes, so tell me how you’re not outsourcing my job.’”

Rob McFadyen, who heads the WestJet pilots union, said Swoop is a clear case of the carrier outsourcing work on routes normally flown by WestJet pilots.

“It’s certainly something we want to be addressed in the contract negotiations,” said McFadyen, adding he couldn’t think of a scenario where there could be a two-tiered system of pilots flying under WestJet

The pilots strengthened their hand in early May with a vote 91% in favour of a strike if necessary.

They backed this up with a show of strength and solidarity on May 8: 150 pilots, including some from United and Delta, stood in full dress uniform, shoulder-to-shoulder, outside a meeting of the Westjet shareholders.

“Our pilots have built this airline, and now it is time for our efforts to be properly recognized in terms of industry-standard compensation and working conditions, and real job security that prevents management from outsourcing our jobs,” said McFadyen.

Westjet pilots have made it clear: any contract short of that, is a contract that just will not fly.

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