The Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett may be regretting his $725 million purchase of NetJets back in 1998. The fractional-ownership airline, which Buffett once called his “number one worry”, has never paid its owners a dividend, and is certainly worth less now than when bought it more than 16 years ago. Even worse, an acrimonious labor dispute at the firm is now moving into high-profile public view.
Moreover, despite his efforts to stay above the fray, Buffett’s name and reputation are clearly being negatively impacted by the ugly labor dispute.
Ongoing labor negotiations at NetJets
Labor unrest is to be expected during bargaining season at NetJets, as the firm has a history of tough negotiations, but the nastiness and escalating tension seems to be garnering more attention from investors and the media this time around..
“Perhaps this is standard posturing between labor and management, but it does appear to be getting more contentious,” noted David Kass, a professor of finance at the University of Maryland and Berkshire shareholder. “And Buffett has said perpetual money or labor problems would be two reasons to exit a company.”
NetJets employees say they are protesting “unjustifiable cost cuts and overhead reductions in the face of increasing flight demand, record profits and a dramatic reduction in debt,” according to a letter sent to Buffett last spring.
The firm says it has offered a contract proposal for its pilots that requested a “few reasonable changes” including reductions to health benefits and inclusion in an annual incentive program related to company and individual performance. NetJets claims its pilots are among the highest-paid in the industry, and that salaries and employee benefits would not be altered under the proposed new contract.
Fake pilot Twitter account
Also of note, the union representing NetJets’s 2,700 pilots filed a lawsuit in Ohio last month claiming that the firm had illegally obtained confidential information posted on a password-protected message board used by pilots. The lawsuit also alleges that NetJets execs have fraudulently set up a Twitter account to impersonate a pilot. The lawsuit alleges that the fake account (called “TwinkieTheKid”) supposedly tried to bait pilots into endorsing or participating in “unlawful job actions”.