CHICAGO (AP) _ United Airlines mechanics and aircraft cleaners approved a new contract that will give them raises for the first time in eight years, ending a bitter two-year dispute that prompted presidential intervention.
The ratification _ approved by 59 percent of the voting membership _ averted a strike that could have started as soon as Thursday. Analysts have said a walkout would have grounded United and forced it into bankruptcy.
The company said the approval removes a key obstacle as it pursues a plan to stem its financial hemorrhaging. The airline lost an industry-record $2.1 billion last year.
``Today's ratification vote provides a foundation on which to build our strategic recovery efforts,'' UAL chief executive Jack Creighton said in a statement Tuesday night.
The 12,800 mechanics and cleaners resoundingly rejected a previous contract offer three weeks ago and authorized a strike. But United sweetened the terms of the five-year pact and negotiators reached a tentative agreement Feb. 18, barely 36 hours before a walkout that could have shuttered the airline.
The new contract gave workers their first raise since 1994 _ a substantial increase that provides industry-leading pay.
``I want to thank our members at United for the strong support they gave their negotiating committee under very difficult circumstances,'' union president Scotty Ford said. ``Their determination and professionalism allowed the negotiating committee to obtain the best agreement possible.''
Under the new contract, senior mechanics' pay would go from the current $25.60 an hour to $35.14, or about $73,000 a year. For top-scale aircraft cleaners, hourly pay would increase 19 percent to $19.76 an hour, or about $41,000 a year.
Those figures were unchanged from the previous offer, crafted by an emergency board established by President Bush. But United made other key changes in order to win the approval of negotiators from District 141-M of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
The airline increased the retroactive pay due each mechanic to $16,500 from $12,500, speeded up the timetable under which it will be paid, boosted pensions slightly and agreed workers would retain the right to vote on concessions envisioned as part of United's emergency recovery plan.
``It was an industry-leading agreement, and in today's times, I thought it was just a deal we couldn't afford to pass up,'' said Steve Adams, secretary-treasurer of the Denver local and a 16-year employee of the airline.
But some mechanics remained opposed because they disagreed with the amount or timing of retroactive wages for work since the contract came up for renewal in July 2000. Retroactive pay won't begin until December.
With the mechanics' situation resolved, the airline hopes to quickly wrap up negotiations on a separate contract with its 23,000 baggage handlers, customer service representatives and reservation agents.
Then Creighton is expected to push for wage givebacks that he says the airline's employees must make if United is to return to profitability. Union leaders expect talks on that touchy subject to last several months before being put to a vote by members.