Flexjet Pilots Oust Teamsters In Huge Defeat For American Unions

(Bloomberg) -- Pilots at Flexjet LLC voted to end representation by the Teamsters union, a significant blow to organized labor in one of its few remaining strongholds and a coup for the jet-leasing company, which steered a heated campaign to sway workers.

Pilots voted by a margin of 318 to 220 to decertify the Teamsters in electronic voting over the past month, according to results verified by a representative of the National Mediation Board Wednesday. The pilots had voted narrowly to join the union in 2016, but since then had been unable to secure a contract deal with the Cleveland-based company. The union blamed a cynical campaign and delay strategy by deeply anti-union Flexjet officials for the reversal in employee sentiment.

Management hailed the vote, which it said “will provide Flexjet with a huge competitive advantage in the fractional jet ownership market.” In recent months, the company has sent workers anti-union messages including one referencing a “long list of Teamsters companies that are no longer in business,” and launched a “Vote For Flexjet” website telling employees that if they dumped the Teamsters, “the company will be able to work directly with the pilots and make our airline great again.” 

The National Mediation Board had ordered the election after receiving a petition to oust the Teamsters signed by the majority of pilots at Flexjet and sister company Flight Options. Anti-union advocates were watching how the battle played out, while at least one advocacy group actively sought to help defeat the Teamsters.

In a statement Thursday, the local Teamsters union said that “due to an aggressive campaign by management, the majority of Flexjet pilots were not convinced of the benefits of collective bargaining.” The union said that, despite its concerns with management's alleged conduct, it would not ask the government to re-run the election. “Flexjet pilots, like their peers across the industry, will come to realize through their own experience that union representation is essential for maintaining professional independence, high safety standards, protection from the negative effects of mergers and acquisitions, and good pay, benefits and working conditions.”

The union had accused Flexjet of mounting a years-long strategy to stoke pilot frustration by blocking bargaining table progress and allegedly coercing employees to renounce the union. The union said prior to the voting that it was investigating “evidence of election interference” by management. Flexjet has denied any wrongdoing.

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.  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 worried that a defeat at Flexjet would have broader implications. Flexjet agrees.

“This is a historic moment not only for our company but also for the industry as a whole, since no other pilot group has elected to remove representation by organized labor,” Flexjet chairman Kenn Ricci said in a statement.

In a letter to employees following the vote, Ricci announced Flexjet would give every pilot a $1,000 bonus check to “enhance your celebration” of the outcome.

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