Unifor was in the midst of a union drive for thousands of Westjet ground and call centre staff when their jobs were suddenly axed
“It’s just brutal. It should never be allowed. It should be illegal.”
Unifor President Jerry Dias did not mince words when it came to Westjet’s latest cost-cutting move. Unifor was in the midst of a union drive among 2,300 Westjet staff who worked at airports and call centres when the axe fell.
Canada’s second-largest airline announced plans yesterday to contract out all of its airport operations – such as ticket and gate agents – in all but four locations. Only airline staff in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Toronto would be spared. At the same time, Westjet said its call centres would be consolidated in Calgary and office and management roles will be restructured. In all 3,333 people will lose their jobs.
“There’s no question the airline industry has challenges,” said Dias. “But the worst thing is I think about the culture of Westjet, how for the longest time they called themselves owners and Westjetters, and this is how they get treated. A lot of these people who are being let go have been there from day one.”
Westjet President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Sims said in a company video that the move was necessary “to provide security to our remaining 10,000 WestJetters.”
“Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, WestJet has taken responsible and reasonable actions to preserve and protect the future of our airline,” a company spokesperson said in an email. “Yesterday’s announcement regarding these strategic but unavoidable changes will better position us to provide security to the remaining WestJetters, and to carry on the work of transforming our business. We will continue to prioritize providing our employees with transparent and timely information, while tending to the critical business at hand.”
But Dias argued the move is an attempt by Westjet to hire the same people, but at a fraction of the cost.
“They’ll outsource all that work to another handler,” said Dias, pointing to existing companies such as Swissport and ATS that contract airport work to airlines around the world. “Westjet will speak to the groups that they’ve outsourced the work to, they will hire their own employees and they’ll hire them at a fraction of the cost with little or no benefits. It’s a way of Westjet keeping the same people with the expertise but paying them a fraction of what they have to. It’s just disgraceful.”
Affected employees currently make an average of $20 an hour with Westjet, said Dias. Contracted companies rarely pay much more than minimum wage.
“We’ve got our lawyers looking at it as we speak,” said Dias. “But the reality is there’s no legislation to prevent the contract flipping and non-union environments are even worse.”
Aviation in Canada is federally regulated, and Dias said he spoke with federal ministers before the pandemic struck, but saw no movement to ban the practice.
Dias also wonders if Westjet didn’t move now before a union could be certified. “I think it had something to do with it because they didn’t lay off one unionized employee,” he said.
In March, Westjet cancelled all of its international flights and laid off 6,900 people, many of them unionized flight attendants and pilots only to rehire 6,400 a few weeks later thanks to federal wage subsidies. Employees were offered voluntary leaves and retirement packages to reduce the impact of staff cuts.
“I have bargaining relationships with Porter, Air Canada, several other small carriers,” said Dias. “In all my conversations with them, not once would they even think of doing this. So they’ve got a pandemic, and they’re using it as the example to squeeze.”
Dias said Westjet risked paying a political – and reputational – price for its business decision.
“People really show their true colours in times like this,” he said. “Here we’re a nation pulling together, supporting each other and these workers did everything they could with pride and this is how they’re treated. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Dias said his union would try to support affected workers, including speaking to Westjet’s competitors to see if they could place affected workers. He also said his union would continue its drive with staff in Westjet’s remaining cities.