Teamsters back union push at Flight Options

 - April 14, 2008, 7:33 AM

A union organizing campaign is under way at fractional-aircraft provider Flight Options, according to Don Treichler of the International Brother of Teamsters (IBT) airline division, with an initial distribution of “representation” cards sent to pilots on along with an explanatory newsletter dated May 23. IBT followed up with a second newsletter dated June 12.

Treichler said that provisions of the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which covers the organizing and representation of railroad and airline employees, require that a minimum of 35 percent of eligible employees return representation cards before a union is permitted to apply for an election with the National Mediation Board. As a matter of policy, however, IBT’s airline division requires representation cards from 65 percent of a company’s members before it will file for an election. Treichler said that the number of cards filed to date is confidential, as well as the names of the pilots who file them and vote in an eventual election, which is done by secret ballot via mail and takes a minimum of 28 days.

IBT represents 1.4 million workers in the U.S., he said, of which 50,000 are in aviation and about 5,500 are pilots. Most of these pilots work for regional and cargo airlines, but the employees of one notable fractional company are represented by IBT–NetJets.

“Upon the merger of Raytheon Travel Air and Flight Options,” Treichler told AIN, “several of the former Raytheon pilots were terminated and thereafter reported this to us. A number of these pilots had been working with us in the attempt to form the union at Raytheon Travel Air before the merger. Our attorneys are now researching the issue to determine if there was a violation of the Railway Labor Act.” This act
was used as the model for the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which established the National Mediation Board.

“There is more than one avenue we can take with this,” Treichler said. “We will act according to the results of our research.”

That research will attempt to find out if in fact the first six or seven firings of pilots by Flight Options in the days following the merger are connected to these pilots’ participation in union-organizing activities at Raytheon Travel Air (RTA) during the months before the merger. Ken Ricci, chairman and CEO of Flight Options, told AIN that 12 to 14 of the approximately 470 Travel Air pilots who transferred to Flight Options “didn’t make the transition after the merger.” Another 10 quit on their own, he said. Flight Options ended up with about 900 pilots after the merger.

RTA employees were apparently informed of the pending merger in December, when the vote on union representation of RTA pilots was in motion. The election, held January 16, “resulted in 41 percent of the eligible pilots voting for IBT and the remainder not voting,” according to an IBT May 23 organizing newsletter.

“Before the vote,” Treichler said, “at least 65 percent of the Raytheon pilots had returned representation cards, so at least 24 percent of them changed their minds between the time they returned the cards and the election. Ken Ricci interposed himself in the organizing process, campaigning against a union, writing letters and e-mails. There’s no doubt in my mind that his actions constitute interference.” IBT decided not to contest the election, he said, because the merger between RTA and Flight Options took place shortly thereafter. “The RTA election therefore became a moot point,” said Treichler.

According to the May 23 newsletter, “Flight Options pilots from both the old Flight Options and RTA again have requested that we [IBT] assist them in organizing. For obvious reasons, your organizing committee chooses to remain anonymous. It requests that you fill out a card and return it to IBT. A card is a request for a vote and it is good for a one-year period.”

Ricci told AIN that the merger of the two fractional providers was completed on March 21 and Flight Options took over RTA’s flight operations on March 26. Flight Options holds the majority share (50.1 percent) of the merged company, while Raytheon Aircraft has the rest.

Depending on their work schedules, the RTA pilots began flying for Flight Options on or after March 26. But in the first two weeks of April, many of the former union organizers were reportedly fired.

Said Ricci of the terminations, “When I terminate someone, I never comment on any reason why, because I think when people are terminated they are entitled to their dignity. The problem is that when you take this position you are defenseless against the terminated employee. It allows the employee to make up a reason as to why he was terminated.”

In late December before the election and the merger, one of the RTA pilots e-mailed Ricci, asking “Do you plan to fire the pilots at RTA if the vote to organize goes through?” In his e-mailed reply Ricci wrote, “While it may be legally possible, terminating the RTA pilots would be impossible to execute under the management philosophy I have built the company on. It would destroy mine and my management’s credibility and therefore our ability to lead this company. Finally, it’s wrong to treat people that way. There are certain things in life that are sacred. No one should consider a course of action that would so severely demonstrate a lack of compassion for fellow human beings. (I hope I am being clear enough on my position with regard to this issue.)”

Lawyer Bill Wilder of the Washington law firm Baptiste and Wilder told AIN that “IBT is looking at the issue of the terminations and exploring what response to take.” Baptiste and Wilder does substantial work for IBT’s airline division, he said. Management officials of companies undergoing union organizing have free-speech rights to give their opinions about unions, he explained, but there are limits to what they can say and it is unlawful for a company to take action against employees for their union-organizing activities. Wilder said the usual process is to try to resolve the situation with the company out of court by reinstating the affected employees and compensating them for lost pay. “If a company is unresponsive, then we would file a lawsuit in federal court,” he said.

Such a lawsuit, or lawsuits, would be filed by the pilots individually or as a group against Flight Options. Wilder said he expected it would take “a matter of weeks” for IBT to make a decision whether to go ahead with a lawsuit or not.