On Monday, July 9, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) announced that it had filed an application at the Canada Industrial Relations Board to represent flight attendants at WestJet after more than half of the flight attendants at WestJet and Swoop signed union cards. Emily Niles, a current MIRHR student, was part of the unionization campaign. Emily has been a Member Organizer with CUPE for the past 13 months, and was recently hired as a National Communications Representative.
(The following has been edited and condensed)
What is your role with CUPE?
As an Organizer, my job is to bring new members into the union. So this involves meeting and speaking with workers, discussing what a union is, how their working conditions would be different with a union, process of certification, their rights in a union drive, etc. It’s about having a ton of individual conversations, but also macro ones – through a communications strategy – like responding to something negative the employer has done. Organizing is also about building and resourcing an inside committee of union activists who will lead the campaign from the inside. Helping people realize their collective power to make change is what union organizing is all about.
What was it like working on the WestJet campaign?
The WestJet campaign is the largest campaign I have ever worked on, with 3200 flight attendants looking to join CUPE. We had organizers and resources in the three main bases: Toronto Pearson International Airport, Calgary International Airport, and Vancouver International Airport. There was a whole team of CUPE flight attendants from other airlines like Air Canada and Air Transat working on the campaign as well.
It has been a very rewarding experience to see this through. Flight attendants have really challenging work rules. For example, they’re only paid for the time that the door on the plane is closed, to the time it opens at the gate, so do a lot of unpaid work. Not to mention the fact that they work 30K feet in the air in metal tubes. Truly, Flight Attendants are safety professionals and they’re often not acknowledged as such – by their employer or by passengers.
Was it challenging to balance the campaign and your MIRHR studies?
Most of my professors know my role in the union and have been very interested and supportive. It is extremely challenging to take a pause on the campaign and attend lecture, or work on a paper or meet for a group assignment. The stakes are very high for these workers. I’m often getting messages or calls about people being targeted by the employer for their union activity, or terminated and looking for advice, or being denied accommodations and wanting support. And everything is urgent.
WestJet is often cited in our HR textbooks as a model company for non-union employee relationships, so that’s been kind of funny.
For more information about unionization at WestJet, check out the CIRHR Library’s tumblr, work&labour news&reasearch.