Republic Pilots Vote ‘No Confidence’ in COO

 - October 10, 2013, 4:02 PM
The Teamsters union charges Republic Airways' COO with failing to ensure the "operational reliability" of the airline's Bombardier Q400s. (Photo: Republic Airways)

The long and ugly contract dispute between the pilots of Indianapolis-based Republic Airways and company management turned still uglier this week, as the Teamsters-represented group voted “no confidence” in COO Wayne Heller and his senior leadership team. The vote tally, announced by the Teamsters on Wednesday, showed nearly unanimous support for the resolution by the 1,490 of the 2,093 Republic pilots that cast ballots. Of those who participated, 97.5 percent cast no-confidence votes.

The vote followed some six years of contentious negotiations between company management and Teamsters Local 357 leaders over an amendment to a contract originally signed in 2003. The union and company agreed to federal mediation with the National Mediation Board (NMB) in 2011, and later that same year, more than 99 percent of the pilots voted in favor of a strike. However, the government-appointed mediator has refused to release the parties to a 30-day “cooling off” period before a strike could legally occur.

Union leaders cite several alleged deficiencies in Heller’s leadership as reasons for the no-confidence vote, including a refusal to bargain in good faith, misrepresentation of financial data, failure to ensure proper reliability of the company’s Q400 turboprop operation and an attempt to prevent the hiring of Republic pilots at other airlines.

According to the Teamsters, Heller and his negotiating team have refused to bargain since March 2013, when the company issued its “best and final offer.”

In an interview with AIN, a company spokesman categorically denied all the charges and attributed the NMB’s refusal to schedule a cooling-off period and force a halt to negotiations through 2014 to the union’s intransigence.

“At some point [the NMB] had to determine, with something like an excess of 100 cases that they’re working, where the best chances of reaching an agreement [is], where their resources would be best utilized,” he said. “And they did an evaluation of all their cases and made the determination that ours was not one of them.”

“The NMB has two basic tools it can use when its efforts to help parties reach an agreement have not succeeded,” the company further explained in a written statement. “When it believes a company, not the union, has not bargained in good faith, the board can release the parties from mediation; this triggers a cooling-off period, which can lead to a strike. The other is used when the board concludes that the union, not the company, has maintained unreasonable bargaining positions. When this is the board’s finding, it can refuse to schedule further negotiations, which is the course the NMB has taken in this case.”

The company spokesman also insisted Republic would agree to negotiate further without NMB participation, notwithstanding its position that the local union chapter should allow its members to vote on its last offer. “We have made an offer that, number one, increases significantly the compensation for our first officers,” he said. “It increases compensation for all of our pilots; it puts all of our pilots in the top tier of their competitive peers; and it maintains the ability of the company to grow and to add business and, therefore, secure the long-term future of not just the company, but the employees that work at the company. That’s what’s distressing because we are for some reason or other, not able to get a vote on that agreement, but instead we get a vote on whether you want to say you have confidence or no confidence in the leadership of the company.”

The union also charges that Heller presented company financial information contrary to corporate SEC and DOT filings to the National Mediation Board. “To say that we’ve presented information that’s contrary to our filings with the SEC is absurd because those documents are public,” countered the spokesman. “The IBT has failed to respond when we have asked them to identify areas that are misleading and inconsistent with those filings.”

On union charges that Heller has allowed “corporate mismanagement” of FAA safety programs, the spokesman noted that, in fact, the local union leadership withdrew its participation in the FAA’s voluntary safety programs known as ASAP and FOQA. “The local reinstated its participation only after being ordered to do so in what can only be described as a strongly worded letter from IBT general president James Hoffa,” said the company.  

For his part, Teamsters local 357 executive board president Craig Moffatt told AIN he wouldn’t engage in what he called “mud slinging” with Republic. He did say he would accept the company’s offer to negotiate outside the auspices of the NMB, but noted that the board must approve any agreement that has gone to federal mediation.

“We certainly can do that,” said Moffatt. “But in the end you still have to answer to the mediator because you’re in federal mediation.”

Moffatt also took issue with the notion that the board can suspend mediation until after 2014. “Where in the law is it written that parties are put on indefinite hold, or put on ice, or any of the clichés that our company and even people at the NMB use? It’s not in the law,” he said. “All we contend, as far as the NMB goes, is they need to uphold the current law…I don’t believe the mantra that there’s such a thing as an indefinite hold or we’ll just go on forever spending taxpayers money to do nothing. I just don’t buy into that.”