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A ground worker wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 unloads lobsters from a WestJet Airlines flight at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Jan. 21, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

More than 500 WestJet employees in Vancouver and Calgary have unionized with Unifor, saying a change in workplace culture after the airline’s sale was a big part of the workplace organization efforts.

The 531 WestJet workers – which include airport agents such as customer service workers – join more than 7,000 other unionized airline workers with Unifor under carriers like Air Canada and Air Canada Jazz.

“You went from the perception of ‘we’re teammates, it’s a family culture,’ to being owned by Onex, which is a huge, huge company,” said Unifor president Jerry Dias, referencing WestJet’s owner, Onex Corp., which acquired the airline nearly two years ago.

“Onex operated different than the old WestJet for sure, one of the first things that happened was the unilateral outsourcing of so many jobs in some of the smaller bases.”

The union said the workplace organization efforts will help ensure that senior employees are the first to be called back in an eventual reopening of the airline industry.

WestJet said it has received notice of the union’s successful application and will work through the next steps with the national labour board.

“WestJet respects the individual rights of employees to choose their representation and will continue to work with the Canada Industrial Relations Board to provide the outstanding required information in response to the application,” said spokeswoman Morgan Bell in an e-mail.

Unifor Organizing Director Kellie Scanlan said conversations with WestJet workers had been going on prior to the pandemic, and moved online after COVID-19 hit.

She said unionization efforts are continuing at WestJet’s bases in Toronto and Edmonton as well.

“We feel very optimistic about the future of both of those places,” said Scanlan, who said they’re working on getting more membership cards signed.

“This win shows WestJet workers across Canada that they too can gain a voice in the workplace.”

The union said workplace organization has been part of the successful lobbying effort for financial support for the airline industry from the federal government amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sherwin Antonio, a customer service agent with WestJet in Calgary, said the unionization will help protect workers during the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“This last year has been extremely difficult for WestJet employees,” said Mr. Antonio.

“Being part of a union will essentially put in place rules and processes for how a growing company handles such difficult times, to ensure fairness and respect for all in the workplace.”

The union filed their application to the Canada Industrial Relations Board last month, and the board certified Unifor as the bargaining agent for the workers on Thursday.

Unifor is one of Canada’s largest private sector unions and represents more than 300,000 workers across the country. It represents more than 16,000 workers across the aviation industry.

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