Air Canada stumbles on fashion runway


From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail

Published Tuesday, Sep. 13 2005, 5:30 AM EDT

Last updated Wednesday, Apr. 08 2009, 12:41 AM EDT
Air Canada management and employees are accustomed to sparring over key issues from wages to pensions, but the latest fight in their rocky relationship features union leaders accusing the airline of committing a fashion faux pas with new uniforms.

The two sides are embroiled in a spat that will delay the launch of redesigned uniforms, first unveiled 11 months ago by pop diva Celine Dion in a makeover intended to usher in a new era for the airline.

The unions are concerned about everything from leather belts (“too casual”) to sweaters (“revealing undergarment contours” and “far too clingy”) to jacket armholes (“too small”) to pant pockets (“placed too high”) to dress design (“matronly”).

Air Canada managers are pondering their next step.

The executives have received a list of complaints from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), representing 7,000 flight attendants, and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), representing 2,900 airport counter staff.

“We know it is impossible to have uniform components that suit all body types and sizes,” union leaders said in a letter to Air Canada management. “Should the company pursue the ‘clinging’ sweater set, we know for certain that this optional component will be worn by some employees who will not suit it. This will, thereby, project a poor branding image that Air Canada will not want to project.”

The Montreal-based airline, approaching the first anniversary of its emergence from bankruptcy protection, had hoped that its front-line staff would be outfitted by the end of this year.

“It is also unfortunate that because our concerns had not been properly addressed and/or dismissed, this has resulted in further delaying the original timetable of this important project,” union leaders wrote in their Sept. 7 letter.

The unions argue that the uniforms are prone to wrinkle too easily and that the Lycra spandex in blouses and shirts retains odours. The litany of complaints means the new look likely won’t be in place until next March, assuming a second phase of “wear-testing” trials by select employees goes smoothly.

“We are still tracking toward our planned implementation date of the first quarter of 2006,” airline spokeswoman Laura Cooke said yesterday.

Earlier this year, a wildcat strike to protest Air Canada’s disciplinary letters at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport grounded dozens of flights. This latest wrangling over new uniforms shows that far from long-lasting labour peace after restructuring under bankruptcy protection, there’s a tenuous truce, said Isabelle Dostaler, director of the international aviation MBA program at Concordia University.

“There are therapists for marriages, so maybe there needs to be corporate counselling at Air Canada,” Prof. Dostaler said.

CUPE and the CAW say it isn’t just the apparel’s design that’s troubling, but also the quality, durability, safety and cost of the uniforms.

Montreal fashion designer Debbie Shuchat, who created the prototype for Ms. Dion, and apparel company VF Imagewear have resolved some of the issues in a joint management-union “uniform working committee.”

Last October, Ms. Dion performed in front of Air Canada employees in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, belting out a three-song set as she wore the “midnight blue” uniform with “silver sky” lining.

Air Canada emerged from bankruptcy protection on Sept. 30, 2004, and it hoped that Ms. Dion’s appearance and the new uniform would help boost employee morale and win over customers. Management insists that through the uniform working committee, employees have had a wide range of input from the beginning.

CUPE and the CAW say they pushed for uniforms containing “100 per cent wool fabric” from the start, but management insisted on testing suits that include a mix of wool, polyester and spandex.

As well, in the testing of jackets for women and men, female employees didn’t like the lining sagging in their design while male workers complained about the lining being too short in their version, making the jacket ride up.

“Regretfully, at the eleventh hour, we are now faced with a major problem as to how to launch the new uniform without incurring additional delays and costs, from not having addressed this issue in a timely manner,” said the Sept. 7 letter signed by two CUPE and two CAW officials.

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