Airline Pilots May Be Next in the Corporate War on Unions
U.S. commercial pilots are one of the few remaining strongholds of America’s diminished labor movement, but Flexjet LLC is trying to upend that conventional wisdom. Anti-union advocates are watching as a battle between the Teamsters and the jet-leasing company plays out, with one non-profit group representing Flexjet employees who are pushing to get the union out.
Some 550 pilots will start voting Wednesday on whether to embrace the company’s entreaties to dump the Teamsters, which arrived at Flexjet just a few years ago. The government-supervised vote, which will be held electronically through May 30, comes two years after the pilots narrowly voted to join the union. Since then, the Teamsters have been unable to secure a contract deal with the Cleveland-based company. The National Mediation Board, the federal agency responsible for airline labor relations, ordered the election after receiving a petition to oust the Teamsters signed by the majority of pilots at Flexjet and sister company Flight Options.
“The union really hasn’t proven that they’ve been able to do anything positively for the pilots,” said company Chairman Kenn Ricci, who is encouraging employees to go union-free.
Union leaders counter that the vote culminates a cynical, years-long strategy by Flexjet to stoke pilot frustration by blocking progress at the bargaining table, falsely blaming the union for the deadlock and coercing employees to give up the union.
“They have never accepted that the union is on their property,” said Efrem Vojta, president of the local Teamsters unit.
The union said it was “investigating evidence of election interference” by Flexjet management, including letting union opponents use company time, facilities and email to campaign against the Teamsters while denying supporters equal access. In addition, the union alleged on Monday, managers are telephoning pilots in the run-up to the vote to urge them to oust the union. The Teamsters, which didn’t detail the evidence in question, said it expects to win the election, but will assess its legal options once the voting has concluded. Flexjet denied any wrongdoing.
Reversing the Teamsters’ victory at Flexjet would be a coup for union opponents. While the overall unionization rate in the U.S. has fallen to a record low 6.5 percent of the private sector workforce, air travel remains heavily organized, with unionization widespread among flight attendants, mechanics and increasingly, airport service staff. On April 18, the Transport Workers Union won an election to represent almost 5,000 JetBlue Airways Corp. flight attendants. The 11 largest national passenger airlines across the U.S. and Canada all have unionized pilots, as do shipping carriers such as UPS and FedEx.
Nevertheless, union leaders worry that a defeat at Flexjet would have broader implications. “It’s like a train,” said Vojta, a Flight Options pilot. “Once it starts, if this is allowed and there’s a decertification, who’s next?”
Flexjet isn’t shy about its distaste for the Teamsters. The company has launched a “Vote For Flexjet” website that tells employees that if they decertify the union, “the company will be able to work directly with the pilots and make our airline great again.”
The website highlights documents that include a profane email sent by a Teamsters official to a colleague blasting a member of Flexjet management. The site also proclaims that unions “live in total fear of the heights our company and our pilots will reach without them, and that pilots at other unionized companies will want to follow the same path.”
Flexjet has also sent workers messages referencing a “long list of Teamster companies that are no longer in business,” accusing the union of “hate-driven fear mongering” and warning against what it called a spreading “cancer” of employees being indifferent to professionalism because the union makes them feel “untouchable.”
Ricci claimed the Teamsters have falsely accused the company of wrongdoing just because Flexjet rejects its “extreme” proposals. As for allegations of interference, he said: “My father told me when I was younger that sometimes people will put their faults on you.” Ricci compared his employees to family members. “Imagine if you wanted to have a very close relationship—say it was your kids or your wife,” he said. “Imagine if the only way you could talk to them was through an intermediary.”
“The message we want to get across,” Ricci said of his employees, “is that if you’re pining for a culture of trust—that’s the environment you want to work in—getting rid of this union will get us closer to that environment.”
Captain Vint Fantin, a 19-year Flexjet veteran and chairman of the Teamsters negotiating committee there, called the company’s statements “typical anti-union propaganda.”
“As a professional pilot, we all go about doing our jobs, and we take it all very seriously,” he said. For management to insinuate that we don’t do that, and we try and use the contract to circumvent working and being a professional—it’s outrageous.”
“Those types of statements from our management serve no purpose other than to keep us divided,” Fantin said.
The Teamsters have represented pilots at Flight Options since 2006, and began organizing at Flexjet after Ricci announced plans for his Directional Aviation Capital to purchase Flexjet as well. Pilots at Flexjet and Flight Options are currently working under a contract imposed by an arbitrator last October.
Companies such as Flexjet have a constitutional right to express anti-union views, said University of Wyoming law professor Michael Duff, a former Teamsters shop steward. But the National Mediation Board can order a fresh election if it finds that a firm unduly influenced, interfered with or coerced employees in the lead-up to a vote, Duff added.
In 2015, an arbitrator ruled that Flexjet had illegally fired three pilots, at least in part because of their support for the Teamsters. Separately, a federal judge ruled in 2016 that Flexjet had failed to negotiate in good faith. Flexjet, which has denied wrongdoing, appealed. Last October, the U.S. Court of Appeals threw out portions of the lower court decision without ruling on whether the company had bargained in bad faith because by then it was deemed moot.
Flexjet officials aren’t the only ones egging on the anti-union effort. The filing to jettison the Teamsters lists as representatives Russ Brown and James F. Edwards, the president and the chief executive officer of the Center for Independent Employees, an anti-union legal advocacy group. Brown also runs a separate company dedicated to “keeping companies union free,” according to his LinkedIn page.
Brown said in an email that the foundation was providing employees free assistance with the “difficult” process of dealing with the “obscure” law, and was not working on behalf of the company. He declined further comment. Edwards confirmed that the center is providing legal assistance to a Flexjet employee who petitioned to decertify the Teamsters, but declined to comment further or reveal any of the non-profit’s donors, saying that such disclosure wasn’t legally required and “would quell people donating.”
In a mission statement posted on a website of their own, employees opposing the Teamsters said the decertification effort was a “grassroots effort” by workers who “believe we can work directly with our coworkers in management to grow our company and our careers together.”