December 16, 1995 in Nation/World

Pilot Slowdown Sparks Fedex Worker Loyalty Non-Union Pilots Volunteer To Fly Overtime To Help Counteract Job Action

New York Times

Federal Express has been good to Bill Satterlee. Now Satterlee, a pilot with the overnight delivery company for 16 years who earns as much as $200,000 a year, intends to return the favor.

After Satterlee, 51, had triple-bypass heart surgery last year, Federal Express, instead of putting him on disability, gave him a job training other pilots until he was well enough to return to the cockpit. The company also picked up the tab for about $10,000 in expenses for tests to recertify him for flying.

So when the leaders of the Air Line Pilots Association organized a job action late last month intended to disrupt delivery of packages and letters in the midst of the busy Christmas season, Satterlee - like hundreds of other pilots at Federal Express who are not union members - did not just refuse to join in. Instead, he volunteered to fly extra overtime.

The pilots union’s slowdown, aimed at forcing management to sign a contract offering higher pay, better retirement benefits, and improved job security, could backfire. Rather than winning converts to labor’s cause in this metropolitan area of roughly a million people where unions have rarely made significant inroads, it has led most employees to embrace the company even more tightly.

Earlier this month, several thousand employees rallied in downtown Memphis to express their support for the company, which employs 24,000 people at its headquarters and primary hub here. And a group saying it represented a vast majority of the 110,000 Federal Express employees worldwide took out full-page advertisements in several newspapers to tell customers that the pilots union did not enjoy widespread backing.

“ALPA is misjudging the culture here,” said David Sanders, the chairman of a rival group that is seeking to replace the national union with a local independent union. “They have really dug themselves in a hole.” A third group of pilots wants no union at all.

The pilot union’s action highlights the quandary facing the American labor movement these days as it seeks to recover from years of retreat by adopting a more militant edge. Even as John Sweeney, the new president of the AFL-CIO, vowed recently to make inroads outside of labor’s traditional bastions of strength in heavy industry and among public employees, leaders of the United Automobile Workers conceded on Dec. 3 that their 18-month strike against Caterpillar Inc., based in Peoria, Ill., had failed and sent the remaining strikers back to work.

And the pilots union, which has represented Federal Express’s 2,900 pilots since 1993 but receives dues from just over half of them, faces even more daunting challenges. Federal Express’s other workers are not organized, and there appears to be little sympathy for the affluent pilots, who earn an average of $128,000 a year. Many employees are part time and have relatively low pay, and lots of others started that way.

“This is a home-grown company,” said Doris Waller, who has risen in her 12 years with Federal Express from a part-time package sorter to a fulltime crew travel auditor, “and it’s disheartening when you’ve always been a team and a family, and you have a group who’s trying to wreck it.”

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