- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2001

Senators accused airline unions and executives of greed and irresponsible behavior at a hearing yesterday intended to explore ways to stop labor-related disruptions in the nation's airline service.

Even as witnesses defended their industry, about 30 flight attendants wearing green T-shirts emblazoned with CHAOS standing for Create Havoc Around Our System watched from the audience. They are threatening to strike United Airlines if their demands for higher wages and job security are not met.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said, "The trend toward larger airlines has given unions greater leverage, which appears to have contributed to a mindset that views any work stoppage as legitimate."

The Senate is considering changes to the 1926 Railway Labor Act, which gives the federal government the right to intervene in transportation industry labor disputes to stop strikes and to impose settlements.

In recent months, federal judges have used the act to issue injunctions against union members from United, American Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines. In American's case, a federal court imposed a $45 million fine on pilots for refusing to obey court orders to stop their 1999 sickout, during which they called in sick while their employer refused to meet their salary demands.

Among its options, Congress is considering strengthening its authority over airline labor disputes. The unions object that federal intervention interferes with workers' collective bargaining rights and can drag out negotiations for years.

Mr. McCain mentioned industry pay scales that include an average $140,000 annual salary for pilots who work less than 80 hours per month. Recent United and Delta labor agreements give senior pilots $280,000 per year in base pay with a possibility of earning one-third more by working 25 additional hours per month.

Meanwhile, Mr. McCain said, the average salary for workers nationwide was only slightly more than $21,000 per year.

"Many people argue that management has a choice, but in reality, the choice is to give in to higher salary demands that a company may not be able to afford or face a debilitating strike that may cripple the airline and force it out of business," Mr. McCain said. "I don't believe that anyone would argue that is a choice."

Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, defended airline union members, saying they are merely "sharing in the wealth they created."

He mentioned as an example union members from United who in 1994 purchased a majority share of the airline to rescue it from bankruptcy. Since then, congressmen and others have criticized the United employees as greedy.

"I really object to people who say we're demanding excessive wages," said Mr. Buffenbarger, whose union represents 730,000 workers. "What's wrong with that? We own it."

Sen. John D. Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, asked him, "Where does the public interest fit in?"

Mr. Buffenbarger blamed a lack of runways and "irresponsible overbooking," as well as exorbitant executive salaries, for creating the airlines' difficulties in remaining competitive.

Top executives can sometimes earn bonuses of $40 million per year, he said.

Frederick Smith, chief executive officer of FedEx Corp., said high salaries for executives attract good leaders.

"Top executive talent is very, very hard to find that is effective," Mr. Smith said. Regarding the high salaries for executives, he said, "In terms of the cost structure of the airlines, it's really not an issue."

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