United Airlines mechanics overwhelmingly reject contract, vote to authorize strike

Wednesday, February 13th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ United Airlines mechanics rejected a contract offer that would have given them industry-leading pay, setting up a possible strike that could disrupt service at the nation's No. 2 carrier.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers opposed a provision in the contract that would have required members to give back some of their raises to help the struggling airline recover.

The airline's offer, recommended by an emergency board President Bush appointed in December, called for immediate raises of as much as 37 percent. United mechanics haven't gotten a raise since 1994 and have been working under the terms of the old contract for 19 months.

Sixty-eight percent of members voted to reject the offer Tuesday. In a separate vote, 86 percent voted to authorize a strike. The union says nearly 90 percent of eligible members voted.

The five-year contract required a simple majority to pass, while the strike vote needed two-thirds support.

A walkout could begin as soon as Feb. 20 unless there is a last-minute settlement or unless Bush asks Congress to intervene and possibly impose a settlement. That has never occurred in an airline labor dispute.

Both sides said they want an immediate resumption of talks.

``Both parties have agreed to re-enter negotiations during which either an agreement will be reached or a new proposal advanced,'' chief executive Jack Creighton of United parent UAL Corp. said in a statement. ``If progress is made, and there is no reason to believe that it can't be, then we anticipate that another vote will occur by mid-March, without interruption of operations.''

Tom Buffenbarger, international president of the machinists union, also was anxious to resume negotiations.

``We will travel anywhere, and meet around the clock if necessary for the next six days to reach an agreement,'' he said. ``My advice to Congress and the President remains the same: stay out of this and we will get it done.''

A top United mechanic paid $25.60 an hour would have received a raise to $35.14 immediately and to $37.54 by mid-2004, surpassing the $34 received by American Airlines mechanics.

Scott Brown, a United mechanic for 17 years in Denver, said he voted for the contract proposal, in part because he is financially strapped as he tries to put his son through college.

``Right now finances are tight, I haven't had a raise since 1994 and I need the money,'' he said.

But several union lodges recommended a ``no'' vote because of looming wage givebacks and the fact that employees would not receive retroactive pay for work dating to July 2000 until April 2003.

United, which laid off 20,000 employees and slashed its schedule last fall, says employee concessions are necessary if it is to recover from last year's record-setting $2.1 billion loss. The carrier is 55 percent employee-owned.

Once the dispute with mechanics is settled, the company still needs to resolve a contract impasse with its largest employee group _ 30,000 ramp and customer service workers.