Former flight attendant decries unions’ silence on her sexual assault case

Former flight attendant decries unions’ silence on her sexual assault case

VANCOUVER—The former flight attendant who launched a class-action lawsuit against WestJet after she alleged sexual assault by a pilot says the unions now representing pilots and flight attendants have been slow to take up the cause.

Those unions say they believe sexual harassment in the airline industry needs to be addressed but argue there’s little they can do for Mandalena Lewis’ case because she is not a member of either organization.

“The fact of the matter is (sexual assault in the airline industry) has been a historic and systemic problem that has not yet been uprooted,” Lewis said in an interview Friday. “They’ve been hiding; straight up, the unions have been hiding.”

Court documents filed in 2016 in B.C. Supreme Court say Lewis was on a stopover in Hawaii in January 2010 when an unnamed WestJet pilot allegedly pulled her onto a hotel bed and proceeded to kiss and grope her. The allegations have not been tested in court.

The court document says that after she reported the alleged incident, the Calgary-based company changed Lewis’ work schedule to avoid overlap with the pilot, which left her with fewer working hours. It also alleges she was instructed to keep quiet out of respect for the pilot’s privacy.

Lewis was subsequently fired for insubordination.

She proposed a class-action lawsuit in 2017 on behalf of current and former female flight attendants at WestJet, which she said has failed to implement anti-harassment programs. WestJet has denied that allegation.

Lewis then made extensive efforts to raise awareness about the case on Twitter and by demonstrating at YVR airport in support of other former flight attendants facing similar battles.

She hoped the new unions could help with those efforts to raise awareness.

At the time of her alleged assault, neither WestJet pilots nor flight attendants were unionized. Lewis herself was part of an effort to get employee representation for the flight attendants.

They are represented now. As of last summer, flight attendants are backed by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the largest public-sector union in the country. The pilots got certification with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world’s largest pilot union, in 2017.

Lewis has contacted CUPE and pilot representatives about her alleged assault — expecting on the recommendation of her unionized friends and family that they could help her raise awareness about the case and the problems of sexual harassment in the industry.

Since her employment was terminated before the CUPE union drive, Lewis was not a CUPE member.

CUPE offered general words of support to Lewis in February, when approached by the Star following news that an appeal court would allow the certification of her class action to go forward.

“What happened to Mandalena Lewis should not have happened, and she has the support of CUPE,” said Lou Arab of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Alberta, where the flight attendants’ union is based, in a previous interview. “As a union of flight attendants, obviously we are very concerned about the issue. We think WestJet employees need more significant protection.”

But Lewis said that was the first time she heard a public statement from CUPE on her case — which, as a class action that proposes to capture both current and former WestJet flight attendants, could directly involve their members.

Lewis has reached out repeatedly to CUPE employees over Facebook messenger asking for advice and, especially, public support for her cause. She’s received sympathy and well-wishes but little else.

“The fact that it takes someone to come forward, to go through what I’m going through, to be begging them for help,” she said. “What I would have done is show up the next day, have a protest, have a rally, have signs ready.”

A CUPE spokesperson reached Friday said Arab’s comments still stand and that the union won’t get involved in the class action.

Lewis told a pilot who is now a WestJet ALPA executive member what happened to her in the summer of 2016 — before the pilots had unionized.

“When I initially called him I thought he was going to react like my partner when I told him. Like we need to react right now and get organized,” Lewis said. He listened to her, Lewis said, but hasn’t heard from him since.

In a statement to the Star, ALPA spokesperson Robert Lynch said “ALPA takes any claims of assault or harassment extremely seriously and we encourage all flight crews to report instances of harassment so that they can be addressed appropriately.”

The union does not appear to have an anti-sexual harassment policy on its website and did not respond on the record to questions about why it has not made a statement on Lewis’ case.

With files from Jenny Peng

Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering wealth and work. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen

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