Protesting NetJets pilots gain Buffett's attention

"Our members are convinced the careers they have built here at NetJets are in jeopardy," said Pedro Leroux, president of the pilots union whose members picket in front of the CenturyLink on Saturday.

A few hundred NetJets pilots and some of their family members protested in front of Omaha's CenturyLink Center Saturday, hoping to grab the attention of Warren Buffett.

That they did, as the Berkshire Hathaway CEO addressed the sign-carrying, uniformed protesters during his annual question-and-answer session with shareholders.

Union officials called their action an informational protest to publicize their labor dispute with NetJets. They said they want to avoid a strike.

Buffett said that Berkshire has had hundreds of labor unions, and he could recall only three strikes in the last half-century.

"It's human nature to sometimes have differences about how people get paid," Buffett said, adding that he expects the dispute to be ironed out in time.

NetJets Aviation Inc. is a Berkshire subsidiary, and the labor union representing the pilot group said Buffett's recent remarks in the media made them believe he was not made fully aware of what is happening at the Columbus, Ohio-based luxury air transportation provider.

"Sadly, this is not surprising," said Pedro Leroux, president of the pilots union. "Rather, it is yet another addition to a long list of actions that have broken our trust in CEO Jordan Hansell."

Leroux said NetJets has opted not to extend the pilot contract and instead demanded that pilots and other unionized employees agree to wage, health care and other concessions.

"Management's proposals are what one would expect from a carrier on the verge of bankruptcy as opposed to one that is highly profitable, and this has led to minimal progress in almost two years of contract negotiations," Leroux said.

Among Saturday's protesters were wives and children. "Our members are convinced the careers they have built here at NetJets are in jeopardy," Leroux said. "This is why hundreds are traveling on their time off and at their own expense from across the nation to march."

Buffett, in response to a question, told shareholders that it was not a mistake to buy NetJets. He said flight volume and owner volume was up. "It's a business I'm very glad we own."

Buffett heaped praise on the professionalism of pilots over time.

"We have no anti-union (sentiment) whatsoever," he said.

A national mediator has been assigned to the labor dispute between NetJets and the union, NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots. The first round of mediated talks is scheduled for Monday.

The union represents 2,700-plus pilots who fly in the service of NetJets Aviation.

"It's a business I'm very glad we own. ... We have no anti-union (sentiment) whatsoever."

Warren Buffett on Berkshire subsidiary NetJets

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