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Fri., March 12, 2010

Senate punts on resolving UPS-FedEx labor spat

The U.S. Senate escaped a ticklish dilemma Thursday, but a problem affecting both Washington and Idaho has been only deferred, not resolved. It will return whenever the House and Senate get around to reconciling their separate reauthorization bills for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Although FAA reauthorization is long overdue, Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee had put a hold on it for fear that a provision would be added to erode Tennessee-based FedEx’s ability to compete with larger United Parcel Service.

Corker’s concern, substantial as it is in the minds of his constituents – and also valid in the Inland Northwest – didn’t make much of an impression on the families of 50 people who died a year ago when Continental Flight 3407 crashed at Buffalo, N.Y.

Those people were, in fact, irate that a labor issue behind Corker’s strategy might sidetrack legislation enabling the FAA to move forward with airline safety improvements that address problems identified with the Flight 3407 tragedy.

Who could blame them? FAA reauthorization has been waiting for three years and existing law has had to be extended 11 times during that period. Public safety must come first.

But that shouldn’t require sacrificing sound public policy.

Fortunately, Corker obtained an assurance that the feared provision, which is in the House version of the measure, would not be included in the Senate version. Thus he lifted his hold and the Senate took up the measure, to the relief of the crash victims’ loved ones.

Nevertheless, Corker’s concerns are legitimate. The proposal being pushed by House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., would shift labor relations for FedEx’s overnight parcel service employees to the National Labor Relations Act and away from the Railway Labor Act.

The main impact – as backers UPS and the Teamsters Union well know – would be to enable an isolated local labor dispute to shut down FedEx’s national operation. That is the kind of nationwide disruption the Railway Labor Act was written to prevent.

In this region, such an arbitrary shift in the competitive balance between UPS and FedEx would not only invite transportation chaos generally, it would jeopardize Empire Airlines, a FedEx feeder based in Hayden, Idaho, with dozens of employees in Washington state where it pays rent and landing fees.

FedEx’s ability to succeed despite UPS’ larger size has been credited to a reputation for reliability. No wonder the Teamsters and UPS are eager for Oberstar to resume the battle when the reauthorization bill goes to conference committee.

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