WASHINGTON - The House passed a $66 billion Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill Thursday that contains a change in the labor law affecting certain FedEx Express employees, to which the Memphis-based company continues to object.
The provision removes FedEx Express drivers from the jurisdiction of the Railway Labor Act, which governs air and rail collective bargaining agreements on a nationwide basis, and makes them subject to the National Labor Relations Act jurisdiction.
The bill passed 267-151, with 43 Republicans joining 224 Democrats.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has been trying to organize the company's drivers at the local level, where labor disputes are resolved by the National Labor Relations Board. A labor dispute at a local could affect FedEx's overall operation and jeopardize the company's reputation for next-day deliveries.
The Senate bill does not contain the provision and it is widely expected to be stripped out of whatever bill emerges from a conference committee. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., is seeking to be among House conferees, his press secretary, Marilyn Dillihay, said Thursday.
During the House debate on the measure Thursday , Cohen took to the House floor to explain why he opposed the provision opposed by FedEx but also why he intended to vote for the bill.
"I speak in opposition to the FedEx Express language, not as an opponent of workers' rights to collective bargaining, but as an advocate of what I believe are the best economic interests of Tennessee's 9th Congressional District and this nation, which needs a steady stream of interstate commerce provided for through the Railway Labor Act," Cohen said.
Cohen said the amendment affecting FedEx was passed in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee after a "marked departure from . normal practice," which included no hearings on the issue. Cohen voted against the amendment in committee.
FedEx CEO and founder Frederick W. Smith in July testified before a Senate Finance subcommittee on energy and infrastructure that he took exception to the amendment in the House bill and the method used to pass it. He testified that the FedEx Express pickup and delivery operations are "an integral part of its air operation."
UPS, by contrast, began as a trucking operation. Most of its drivers are Teamsters.
In a prepared statement after Thursday's vote, FedEx spokesman Kristin Krause said: "While it is certainly disappointing the House chose to pass this legislation, the Senate has yet to act and it is a long way from becoming law. We are hopeful that our competitors and other special interest groups will not be allowed to use Congress to favor one company's business model over another.
"While FedEx and UPS may appear to do the same thing, our businesses are different in structure and origin. These differences provide choice in the marketplace and that is what makes America great. If there is true concern about the jurisdiction of the Railway Labor Act then it should be addressed in a fair and open process."
The overall FAA reauthorization provides for $66 billion over four years for the FAA's programs scheduled to expire at the end of the month. That figure included $570 million to hire additional safety inspectors. The bill provides $15.8 billion for the Airport Improvement Program providing grants to airports, $4 billion more than the Bush administration proposed. It provides an additional $13 billion for renovation of FAA facilities and equipment.
The bill also requires the FAA to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study on pilot fatigue and change, where appropriate, regulations on flying time and rest requirements.
The bill also changes the way FAA negotiates with air traffic controllers; raises the maximum age for pilots from 60 to 65; and raises the passenger facility charge from $4.50 to $7 to meet local capital needs.
Among Greater Memphis members of Congress, besides Cohen, U.S. Reps. John Tanner, D-Tenn., Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., and Marion Berry, D-Ark., voted for the measure. U.S. Reps. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., voted against it.
Said Blackburn: "(The FAA reauthorization bill) is just another example of the new majority's runaway spending habits. I agree that the FAA needs to be reformed and modernized, but you don't solve a problem by simply throwing money at it. This reauthorization calls for spending more than $66 billion on FAA programs over the next four years, but does not include any safeguards to ensure that taxpayer money is used in an efficient manner."
Reach Washington correspondent Bartholomew Sullivan at (202) 408-2726 or SullivanB@shns.com