Safer aviation requires fairer laws

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America’s air safety and management systems are close to being updated for the better, but may be held up by one company’s insistence on clinging to an outdated labor law that gives it an advantage over its rivals.

The House and Senate have each passed their version of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act, and those will be settled in a conference committee sometime in April. Delivery giant FedEx is threatening to hold up the process unless it gets to maintain a special treatment it gets over its rivals.

The advantage works like this: When pitching UPS customers, FedEx’s aggressive sales force is famous for bragging that the special government protections of the Railway Labor Act (RLA) makes it “union proof.” And when pitching the politicians in Washington, DC who give it those special protections, FedEx’s aggressive lobbying force argues that if its truck drivers were regulated the same way every other express-delivery companies’ are—by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)—it would inevitably unionize their company.

We are warned from childhood that sales pitches and political pitches are known more for their surface appeal than the facts that underlie them. Scratch the surface of FedEx’s pitches, and they quickly fall apart.

The facts are these: Of the FedEx employees regulated by the so-called “union-proof” RLA, over 95 percent are unionized. And of the FedEx employees regulated under the so-called union-forcing” NLRA less than 1 percent are unionized.

So, Fed Ex’s political pitch is not merely exaggerated, but diametrically at odds with the facts.

So, why is FedEx Express lobbying so hard to keep its truck drivers regulated as if they were airline employees, when history demonstrates this has no real-world effect on union participation inside FedEx? It’s because FedEx uses the disparity as leverage against UPS in high-pressure sales. FedEx wants to scare prospective clients into dropping UPS and signing on with FedEx on grounds that FedEx is “union proof” and so they will never face a strike.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with aggressive sales efforts. The problem comes when a company is selling the protection they are getting from Washington DC, rather than better products and services. FedEx is selling a supposedly “strike-proof” status granted by Washington, while UPS has no such protection. That’s not the free market at work, its government favoritism, and it should stop.

While Americans understand the importance of equal treatment under the law, some are hesitant to treat these competitors equally for the reason that their political opponents—notably labor unions—also support treating the companies equally. These unions may entertain fantasies of a unionized FedEx, but the long history of FedEx’s NRLA workforce is one on rejecting unionization. And since that seems unlikely to change, the unions’ fantasies are just that.

While anyone who knows me can confirm that I’ve never been a political ally of big labor, when I supported more domestic energy drilling in Alaska, I did not let the fact that unions also supported that drilling dissuade me. Facts are stubborn things and I don’t much care who agrees or disagrees with me when I am standing on a clear principle.

For too long, FedEx has supported regulations in Washington that disadvantage its chief rival, UPS. They have had years to enjoy the favoritism, and to use that favoritism to spin potential clients. But now it’s time for these political games to end. It’s time both companies were treated equally under the law, and compete for customers without government intervention.

Malcolm Wallop, Chairman of Frontiers of Freedom, served for three terms as a Republican Senator from Wyoming.