Air Force contractor union strike in Wichita could affect new KC-46 tanker training

A strike by employees of a Wichita contractor may affect training for the military’s newest air refueling tanker at bases in Kansas and Oklahoma, Air Force officials say.

The 17 striking workers of FlightSafety Services Corp. are contractors at McConnell Air Force Base, said union spokesman Scott Gardner of Local Lodge 708 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The strike started Tuesday morning after months of failed contract negotiations.

The employees provide training for Air Force pilots and refuel boom operators on the KC-46 Pegasus, Gardner said. They also maintain flight simulators for the aircraft.

Air Force spokesman Mark Voorhis said in a statement that the strike could affect training at both McConnell and a base in Altus, Okla.

“Flight Safety Services Corporation is expected to continue performing its contractual requirements in the event of a strike, however, these actions eventually have the potential to impact KC-46 training facility operations at both McConnell and Altus Air Force Bases, as some union personnel from the McConnell area also provide support to Altus AFB,” Voorhis said. “The Air Force remains neutral in this labor dispute.”

Union representative Tyson Kelly said 17 hourly workers at the company went on strike. There are only a couple of salaried employees who aren’t union members and are not participating in the strike, he said.

Gardner said no other company provides the same services at McConnell, and Kelly added that they are “very highly skilled and educated men and women.”

“That’s the thing about the men on the strike line, they are the only ones in the world that can perform the jobs that they do,” Kelly said. “This is not like other positions where you can handpick anyone to do that work.”

Flight Safety Services spokesman Steve Phillips said the company’s goal is to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.

“We support the Air Force, the KC 46 program is very important to us, and we support the employees who are on strike,” he said.

Contract negotiations started in October. The union’s members unanimously voted to reject the company’s latest offer and go on strike, Gardner said. The issue, he said, was omitted language that would designate the workers as part of the Service Contract Act.

The federal rule requires contractors and subcontractors to pay area wages and benefits as determined by the government. Without the designation, employees have been working for 13 months at a 45 percent less pay compared with other union contract employees in the same industry across the country, Kelly said.

“That is not fair to them,” he said.

The Service Contract Act can result in workers being paid above the average wage for those in similar industry positions, Kelly said.

“Without it, you can’t retain the level of skills and workers necessary to keep our military the best in the world,” he said.

The first KC-46 tankers were delivered by Boeing to the two air refueling wings — the 22nd and 931st — at McConnell last month after nearly two years of delays. McConnell was the first active-duty base to receive the tankers, even though military officials said the new tankers had deficiencies that will be fixed at Boeing’s expense.

The Air Force base in Wichita underwent $267 million in construction and renovations in preparation for the aircraft. The base has used its new training facility since May to train Air Force personnel from across the country, officials have said.

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