September 9, 2008 / 8:37 PM / in 9 years

CAW launches effort to unionize WestJet employees

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The Canadian Auto Workers union said on Tuesday it has begun preliminary talks to unionize employees at WestJet Airlines Ltd, which has attributed a big part of its success to a nonunion work force.

<p>A Westjet airline plane lands at the Calgary International Airport in Calgary, Alberta, June 17, 2008. REUTERS/Todd Korol</p>

The union kicked off its efforts at Canada’s second-largest airline following inquiries from a number of WestJet employees, said John Aman, director of organizing at the CAW.

The move follows a handful of failed attempts by other unions over the years to organize Calgary-based WestJet, which has 7,300 employees.

“We are in the initial stages of speaking to all our contacts and obviously trying to develop a strategy that will lead us to success,” Aman said.

The CAW, Canada’s biggest private-sector union, represents ticket agents and some other staff at WestJet’s chief competitor, Air Canada. Last weekend, the union elected Ken Lewenza as its president, replacing longtime boss Buzz Hargrove.

WestJet has been among the most profitable carriers in a global airline industry that has been battered by record fuel costs and a weakening economy. Still, its stock has fallen by a third this year.

Executives have made much of the 12-year-old airline’s corporate culture, which emphasizes stock ownership, profit- sharing and friendly, informal service. Its advertising touts the tireless dedication of “WestJetters.”

“WestJet management did get a lot of mileage with that kind of corporate messaging, but I think as the company evolves and grows and the workers are there for some time, they realize that they fall short in a lot of aspects of their working conditions,” Aman said.

“But at the end of the day it is going to be up to them to decide -- all we can do is put the option in front of them.”

The head of the airline’s employee association, called the Pro-Active Communication Team, said that organization already provides a sufficient voice for workers.

“Our employees have demonstrated that there is no need or desire for union representation,” team chairman Don Hougan said in a statement released by the company.

Versant Partners analyst Cameron Doerksen forecast the CAW would be unsuccessful as other unions have been attracting the interest of most employees of WestJet.

“The purpose of the union is to increase job security and increase wages. I think WestJet’s wages are competitive and they’ve never laid off anybody, so I don’t see any reason why there would be a desire to have a union at this point,” Doerksen said.

In addition, employees may worry they could lose lucrative profit-sharing and share-purchase schemes if they welcomed the CAW, he said.

The carrier’s stock closed down 30 Canadian cents, or 2 percent, at C$14 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Tuesday.

($1=$1.07 Canadian)

Editing by Frank McGurty and Andre Grenon

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