Published in The Tyee | March 22, 2016
WestJet has fired three leaders of a campaign to unionize flight attendants since last March, The Tyee has learned. The dismissed union activists include Mandalena Lewis, who accused the company of failing to investigate her complaint of sexual assault.
A fourth leader in the union campaign, president Tara Mowat, was summoned to a disciplinary hearing based on anonymous reports of drug use, but was cleared.
The WestJet Professional Flight Attendants Association has filed three formal complaints with the Canada Industrial Relations Board alleging the firings were an attempt to thwart the union drive.
The firing of association treasurer Daniel Kufuor-Boakye “was intended to punish him for his union involvement and to send a threatening message to all WestJet employees in an attempt to dissuade them from freely choosing their own union,” one complaint alleges.
WestJet said the firings were justified and denies any link to the attendants’ union activities.
But Kufuor-Boakye said the firing of Toronto-based association chair Heather Gagne a year ago was seen as a warning against becoming involved in union activity.
“We figured she was the canary in the coal mine, the initial salvo, the shot across the bow to us,” he said.
A group of employees have been trying to organize a union for WestJet flight attendants since February 2014. WestJet, which uses employees’ share ownership as part of its branding, has promoted employee associations as an alternative to unions since 1999. An effort to organize pilots failed when 55 per cent of pilots rejected unionization in June.
Gagne was fired March 17, 2015. WestJet said she violated a company relocation policy.
Lewis, who recently went public with allegations she was sexually assaulted by a pilot during a 2010 layover in Hawaii, was fired Jan. 12. Lewis, the association’s governmental affair committee chair, has launched a wrongful dismissal lawsuit alleging the company failed to properly investigate her internal complaint about the assault.
WestJet said Lewis was fired because, after repeated attempts to obtain her own personnel file from WestJet, she included the word “fuck” in an angry email to the airline demanding her files. That violated the workplace harassment policy, WestJet said.
Three days after Lewis was fired, Kufuor-Boakye was terminated. WestJet’s investigators obtained a U.S. court order to determine that five online videos mocking the airline had been posted from an IP address at his house. The videos were defamatory and grounds for dismissal, the company said.
In a sworn statement, Kufuor-Boakye insisted he did not produce the satirically captioned videos and had only seen one that a coworker had emailed to him.
Firings send ‘threatening message’: complaint
The association filed a complaint about his firing with the Canada Industrial Relations Board on Jan. 27. Its lawyers said that “even if WestJet had reason to discipline Mr. Kufuor-Boakye, a response short of termination would have been more appropriate and in keeping with WestJet’s previous practice and its own Policies.”
The firing was “tainted by anti-union animus,” the lawyers allege. “The termination of Mr. Kufuor-Boakye was intended to punish him for his union involvement and to send a threatening message to all WestJet employees in an attempt to dissuade them from freely choosing their own union.”
WestJet’s response stated that Kufuor-Boakye’s “support of, and role with, the Union did not at any time factor into the conduct of the investigation, its conclusion, or the subsequent decision to terminate him employment for just cause.”
A day after the association challenged the firing, WestJet informed the group’s president, Tara Mowat, that she was under internal investigation under the airline’s drug and alcohol policy. WestJet had received an anonymous — and twice-retracted — email complaint from that she was abusing marijuana or prescription drugs.
WestJet’s disciplinary hearing for Mowat ultimately concluded the “contradictory” accusations “do not provide credible evidence.”
“No further action is recommended and this matter is now deemed to be closed,” the company said.
Kufuor-Boakye said the four cases have set back the organizing drive and even led some flight attendants to withdraw their signed cards because they fear company retaliation.
The association needs signed union membership cards from at least 40 per cent of WestJet’s 2,600 flight attendants to force a board-supervised vote on unionization.
The three terminations and investigation of Mowat “really put a lot of people on edge,” Kufuor-Boakye told The Tyee.
Since the start of their protracted union drive, which has dragged on since February 2014, nine of the original 13 members have quit or been fired by WestJet, he said.
The association has filed a complaint with the Canada Industrial Relations Board over Lewis’s firing. The federal board is responsible for administering the Canada Labour Code, which applies to federally regulated employees — government workers, and those in sectors such as transportation and communications.
Kufuor-Boakye said Lewis was “a very vocal present union representative” who was also prepared to press for answers on why her sexual assault had not resulted in action from WestJet. “You silence the vocal ones, and that’s what they’ve done.”
‘We respect our employees’ rights to join a union’
A WestJet spokeswoman declined to comment on Lewis’s firing, citing the ex-staffer’s wrongful dismissal lawsuit, nor on Mowat’s case, citing her privacy as a current employee.
“We respect our employees’ rights to join a union,” spokeswoman Lauren Stewart said in an email.
Kufuor-Boakye’s case is still before the Canada Industrial Relations Board, which recently rejected his application for interim reinstatement, Stewart said.
As for Gagne’s case, the spokeswoman said the attendants’ association “voluntarily withdrew its complaint against WestJet” over her dismissal.
Stewart directed The Tyee to a March 4 blog post by WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky, who promised an investigation into sexual assault allegations and dismissed claims of union busting as “unfounded.”
“Allegations have been made… that we have terminated employees for attempts to organize a union drive, a statement that is patently false,” Saretsky wrote.
Kufuor-Boakye disagreed and said the firings created fear in employees interested in the union.
“You can’t help but see it,” he said. “We as employees are conditioned from day one to be scared of them. We’ve been told we’re going to lose our profit-share, the employee share purchase plan, lose this and that if you unionize — we’re going to lose everything.”
Lewis’s dismissal and allegations of sexual assault resulted in similar complaints from other female staff and WestJet has hired consulting firm Ernst and Young to review its procedures for reporting and responding to sexual assault complaints.
But another association member, who asked to not be named for fear of being fired, said Lewis’s termination highlights deeper problems.
“Harassment most definitely exists at WestJet, I can attest to that 1,000 per cent,” the current flight attendant told The Tyee. “I feel absolutely horrible for Mandy and all these other girls that they are victims of a system that did not protect them.”
The association member said a union would ensure sexual assault allegations were properly investigated and reported to police and allay employee fears that they would be punished for reporting assaults.
“People are so scared,” the employee said. “But we’re nothing to be scared of — we want the company to continue to succeed — but we want legal representation.”