Tuesday, November 18, 2014

WestJet union drives leave textbook authors red-faced

I just finished reviewing a textbook for a publisher and ran across yet another mini-case study of WestJet Airlines. I’ve seen at least four of these in the past year in textbooks and typically they are used to illustrate high-involvement management strategies. Such workplace are said to give workers more autonomy and control and, in return, workers work harder.

Despite the relative paucity of successful high-involvement workplaces (which maybe explain the seemingly endless WestJet cases), most HR textbooks uncritically accept this approach as achievable and desirable. In short, by drawing workers into collaboration, workplace conflict is expected to diminish. (Most HR texts adopt a unitarist view of employment where conflict is viewed as undesirable and avoidable, instead of a structural feature of employment in capitalist relations.)

WestJet uses a number of techniques, including partly paying workers (on a matching basis) in shares in lieu of a pension plan as well as in a profit-sharing plan. This sounds good (“the employees are also the owners”). Missing in these case studies is a critical analysis that would surface issues like share purchases reduce operating costs and externalize risk onto workers. For example, if WestJet went belly up, workers would be out of a job and their shares would be worthless.

The point here is not to trash WestJet. I much prefer WestJet to Air Canada: although Air Canada is unionized, they treat their workers (and their customers) terribly. Rather, the point is that these case studies are very superficial and tend to gloss over the structural conflicts of interest that remain in organizations that adopt high-involvement management strategies.

For example, WestJet has various “employee associations” that represent groups of WestJet employees to the company. WestJet pilots (likely the most privileged group of employees, other than executives) have been considering unionization due to concerns about the quality of the deals their current (non-union) association has been able to procure.

The threat of unionization may have contributed to a new contract offer (which WestJet says is “industry leading”) after an earlier offer was rejected. Flight attendants have also be the subject of two unionization efforts. 

What this suggests is that despite being the veritable Canadian poster-child for high-involvement management strategies, WestJet faces many of the same pressures every workplace does. And that what you read in textbooks is not necessarily the whole truth.

-- Bob Barnetson

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