Unionized pilots at UPS Airlines, the airline unit of transport and logistics giant UPS Inc., voted today by a 2,252-to-8 margin to authorize a strike against the airline.
According to the Independent Pilots Association (which represents 2,500 UPS pilots, about 97 percent of the total membership voted.
Under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), the law governing labor-management relations in the railroad and airline industries, the IPA executive board can now formally request that the National Mediation Board (NMB), which oversees labor-management negotiations in both industries, release the union from federally mediated talks with the company. The lengthy and complex RLA negotiating process allows the parties at some point to pursue "self-help," meaning the union can strike and management can impose its own contract. However, there are multiple steps to go through before it reaches that point.
The NMB, which controls the process, has to agree to release the parties from mediation, and is under no timetable to act. Should a mediator release the parties if it is deemed that talks are at an impasse, a 30-day cooling-off period would begin before a potential strike can occur. Both sides are scheduled to return to the bargaining table early next month.
The current contract became amendable in 2011 (under the law, contracts do not expire). The parties have been negotiating for four years, and IPA in a statement said it would no longer tolerate inaction.
"UPS promises its customers on-time delivery, but after four years of labor negotiations, the company has failed to deliver a contract for its own pilots," said IPA President Captain Robert Travis. "In a clear voice, UPS pilots have said they are willing to strike if necessary to finish the job."
Travis noted that unionized pilots at FedEx Corp., Atlanta-based UPS' chief rival, recently ratified a six-year contract. Pilots at Memphis-based FedEx are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).
Mike Mangeot, a UPS Airlines spokesman, called the strike vote a "scripted show of solidarity" that is a routine step and that has no official role in the negotiating process. Mangeot said there have been 20 strike-authorization votes by the pilots' union since 2000, and the average approval rate is 97 percent.
Mangeot added that it could take several years to hammer out an agreement. The 2011 contract, for example, took four years from start to finish, he said.
UPS captains are guaranteed, at minimum, $255,128 per year, and they typically earn about $35,000 more than that, UPS Airlines said. The average pay for all UPS pilots, including both captains and first officers, is $238,000, the company said. By comparison, the next highest-paid captains—who happen to work at FedEx—earn $230,379 at guaranteed levels, the company said. UPS crewmembers receive generous health and pension benefits, the company said.
Officials at IPA did not respond to requests for comment at press time.
Scott Group, an analyst for transport-research firm Wolfe Research, said the threat of a strike, at least in the near term, is extremely low. Should the NMB release the pilots to strike, the 30-day cooling-off period would end sometime in December, during the peak holiday shipping season for UPS. Group said the NMB would not act for fear of crippling the UPS air network during the carrier's busiest time of the year.
In a related development, Teamsters Union President James P. Hoffa, whose union represents about 250,000 UPS workers in the small-package and less-than-truckload industries, earlier this week pledged that his members will walk the picket lines with the pilots if they go on strike. In a letter to the pilots, Hoffa wrote that "if a strike is necessary, we will not cross your lines, but will stand with you on them."