Senate delays FedEx labor showdown

The U.S. Senate this week delayed debate on legislation that shipping giant FedEx says would endanger some of the 2,000 jobs it provides at Oakland International Airport, but local lawmakers say the company just doesn’t want to lose an advantage over its workers and competitors.

FedExWorkers at FedEx Express – the air-oriented rapid delivery division of Memphis-based FedEx Corp. – are covered by the Railway Labor Act, which lets them unionize but curbs their right to strike. A section in the House version of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, HR 915, would amend the RLA to cover only pilots, aircraft maintenance workers and aircraft dispatchers, meaning most of FedEx Express’ employees would suddenly have strike rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

That provision isn’t in the U.S. Senate version of the bill, but the chamber briefly took it up for debate this week – and FedEx went to the mattresses to try to stop it – before the bill was postponed for another three months.

“This provision was inserted in a backroom deal in the dark of night without a hearing, public input or economic study,” FedEx spokesman Maury Lane said Monday. “It changed 70 years of labor law which has been serving employees under the RLA well by having 10 times the amount of unionization than the NLRA … so this move is actually an antiunion move, in reality, if you look at the bigger picture.”

The Teamsters disagree. The union and UPS, FedEx’s arch-rival, convinced House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., to insert and champion the provision. They call the current situation a loophole that treats FedEx differently from all its competitors and deprives workers of labor rights.

Lane says UPS is bigger and older than FedEx but does more of its shipping by truck and entered the air freight business a decade after FedEx, yet structured its operations in such a way that packages are moved by a chain of workers “contaminated” with a mixture of RLA and NLRA labor rules; FedEx Express workers always have been covered only by the RLA.

“They could’ve set their company up smart like we did but they chose to take a shortcut and they’re paying for it now because of a costly labor contract they signed two years ago,” he said. “This is not about leveling the playing field, this is about them wiping us off the playing field and getting a legislative bailout to fix a broken economic model.”

Lane noted FedEx Express has 12,000 employees in California, about 2,000 of whom work in a hub at Oakland’s airport. Giving local workers the power to strike means decreasing FedEx Express’ reliability, he said, citing a 1997 strike that stilled UPS for 16 days. Less reliability means less customers and less revenue, he said, and that means letting workers go.

“There seems to me to be no reason for FedEx to have a special exemption from the normal labor laws that govern that industry,” countered Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, is the only Bay Area member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, though he wasn’t yet in office when the House passed its version of this bill last May.

Garamendi said Northern California’s business is “crucial” to FedEx and the company surely won’t curtail operations here. “UPS operates in the Bay Area very successfully with a union and they’re not pulling out, so I think it’s an anti-union attitude of FedEx that’s in play here, but the reality is quite different.”

Oakland International Airport falls in the 13th Congressional District represented by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont. His staff said he supports the provision because it would treat FedEx the same as its peers and protect workers’ labor rights.

The consensus among staffers for both of California’s U.S. Senators is that the provision won’t be inserted into the Senate version of the bill, so it’ll become an issue for the conference committee working out differences between the House and Senate versions. A spokeswoman for Barbara Boxer said she supports the provision as a means of “leveling the playing field for all of our workers;” a spokesman for Dianne Feinstein said she has taken no position on the provision.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.