A $26,000 Pilot?

Sometimes high-paid jobs provoke a lot of envy and resentment. But sometimes you feel a lot more comfortable when workers in certain positions are making more than a living wage. While attending the Teamsters for a Democratic Union convention Friday, I met a pilot who took home $26,000 last year as a first officer (that’s the one who sits on the right). And he’s union.

This pilot had five years’ seniority at Gulfstream Airlines, flying Beechcraft 1900s around Florida and to the Bahamas and Cuba. That’s a 19-passenger prop plane. His pilot training cost him $160,000, so, paying off student loans, his taxable income in 2008 was just $13,900.

Pilots haven’t been exempt from the assault on living standards over the last 30 years. The way this guy explained it to me, if wages had continued the way they were for pilots in 1978, the entry-level wage today would be $100,000.

Another Gulfstream pilot, with 20 years’ seniority, was doing better than the first, at $65,000 a year. But he was paying $800 a month for family medical benefits. His first year on the job he made $30,000 (that’s $52,000 in today’s dollars) and paid $28 per month for health care. Essentially he’s $3,000 ahead after 20 years of flying.

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These guys were Teamsters, members of Local 747. When their union wasn’t doing anything for them, even on the level of grievances, they started kicking up some dirt. Six months later the top officer was removed for corruption.

Six of them had come to Cleveland to meet with other members of their far-flung local in the Teamsters’ Airline Division.

By pure coincidence, their meeting was taking place in the same hotel as the annual convention of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. All the TDUers were in workshops, so Labor Notes staffer Mark Brenner and I chatted with them. I wondered if TDU was a sensitive topic. “It’s a caucus within the union that’s trying to do in other locals what you did in 747,” Mark explained.

“They don’t like Hoffa,” I warned the guys. “Well, maybe we’re reaping the benefits of the squeaky wheels,” one pilot said. He was the one working three jobs.

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.