Despite Picketing Warren Buffett's Meeting, NetJets Pilots Hope to Avoid Strike

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- One group that traveled to the annual meeting of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) (BRK.B) in Omaha, Neb., didn't go for the food or the discounted merchandise. Some 400 pilots employed by the company's NetJets subsidiary showed up to stage a public protest.

The move by their union, the NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots, was among the latest attempts to gain an edge in contentious contract talks that started more than two years ago when NetJets CEO Jordan Hansell decided against extending the pilots' existing labor agreement.

The union, which represents 2,700 pilots, says NetJets is seeking unfair concessions on wages, work rules and health care. The parties held their first bargaining session in July 2013 but have yet to reach an agreement. The dispute prompted the union to sue last December, making allegations of labor law violations that incorporated references to some of America's best-known brands: Hostess and Twitter (TWTR). Contract talks moved into federal mediation this week.

"Our CEO has broken our trust," said pilots' union President Pedro Leroux, who was among the Omaha protestors. "The pay and the working conditions are no longer competitive."

The attrition rate for pilots has tripled during the past 18 months, and internal surveys indicate that more than 30% are looking for new jobs, he said.

That shows NetJets -- whose fractional ownership model lets customers buy a percentage of an aircraft type and use it for a specified number of flight hours each year -- is risking one of its strongest selling points, its world-class pilots, Leroux said.

NetJets management, which said the picket line outside Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway meeting was "not surprising," is disappointed by the lack of progress in contract talks.

"This sort of demonstration is a common tactic used by unions during collective bargaining," said Christine Herbert, a NetJets representative. "While it is not unusual for negotiations in our industry to be lengthy and complicated, the pace of progress to date has been frustrating to us and our team members."

The pilots' protest garnered enough attention that Buffett himself commented on it during his regular question-and-answer session, denying any regret about his $725 million purchase of the jet-leasing business in 1998.

"We have a good business, and the pilots have a good job," he said. "It's perfectly understandable that employers and employees have some differences from time to time, and we'll get it worked out, but that doesn't necessarily come in a day or a week or a month."

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