Strike Nears as Pilot, FedEx Talks Stall

The possibility of a Federal Express pilot strike during the holiday season is moving closer to reality, especially since talks between the FedEx Pilots Association and management have stalled and no new negotiations have been scheduled.

Further complicating matters is a decision by union pilots at Airborne Express, the cargo airline that's part of Airborne Freight Corp., Seattle, to decline voluntary overtime and to begin informational picketing next week. The union is protesting the dismissal of a pilot who refused to take a flight test in September because he felt the test was unsafe. In addition, Airborne's truck drivers may go on strike over their contract, which ends at the beginning of 1999.

The FPA, with 3,595 members equaling 90 percent of FedEx's pilots, is negotiating for what would be the carrier's first union contract. FedEx and the pilots have been working on a contract for more than five years. Issues include wages and retirement benefits. The pilots already have voted not to work voluntary overtime starting today.

“Shippers won't see a total shutdown, but they are going to see certain shipments that are not going to make it,” said Bob Clement, a spokesman for the pilots group.

FedEx, a unit of FDX Corp., Memphis, TN, ships 3.1 million packages a day. The number increases to 4 million a day during the holiday season.

As for the labor talks, an FPA spokesman said FedEx left the bargaining table on Oct. 30 after offering a 17 percent increase over five years; the FPA is seeking a 24 percent increase over three years. Currently, the pilots earn an average of $130,000 a year but say they make less than their counterparts at United Parcel Service and top commercial airlines.

The FPA mailed strike-authorization ballots to its members last week, and results from the vote are due the first week of December. If they agree, the pilots could walk out any time in December. FedEx tried to challenge the union's right to strike under the Railway Labor Act, but the necessary cooling off period expired in November 1995.

Ultimately, Clement said, the pilots don't want to strike.

“We are loyal employees of FedEx. We love the company and we don't want to go further with this. But we are tired of being at the bottom of the industry in pay. We're tired of having to say please to everything and we are tired of not having contractual agreements.”

FedEx president/CEO Theodore Weise sent a letter warning pilots that a threatened strike during the peak holiday season may drive away some of the company's biggest customers.

“In the event of a strike, we can keep traffic moving with a limited air network and a greatly expanded ground network,” he wrote. “We would suffer, but Federal Express will survive.”

Airborne pilots are facing different circumstances. To begin with, the pilots must follow the Railway Labor Act — they cannot stage a full-on strike, but they can decline voluntary overtime work to protest the pilot's firing or stage sympathy pickets with the truckers.

“We can't have pilots out there who are given the choice between their jobs and doing what they feel is the right thing,” said Rick Ziebarth, president of the Wilmington, OH, local union, which represents 800 pilots. “We can't stand by and let that happen without a fight.”

While there is no connection between the Airborne slowdown and FedEx's possible strike, Ziebarth said, “unfortunately, there is a lot of turmoil in the industry right now.”

Airborne spokesman Tom Brannigan said the pilots' decision not to fly overtime won't affect the company's business.

“Part of the contract we have with our pilots stipulates that in the event that some of the senior pilots refuse to fly overtime, the company can and will require less senior pilots to take those flights,” he said. “It's part of their contract.”

Because the truckers are an integral part of the air-delivery process, Brannigan acknowledged that a strike would affect its ability to deliver packages. Airborne is primarily a business-to-business shipper and delivers 1.3 million packages a day.

If strikes occur at one or both companies, shippers may have to look elsewhere, including DHL Worldwide Express, United Parcel Service and the U.S. Postal Service. However, the capacity these companies have for overnight delivery doesn't match FedEx's — the world's largest air cargo company. Many shippers are working on contingency plans, but the strike could be troublesome because capacity is basically full at these companies during the holiday season.

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