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Bush Moves to Head Off Strike at United Airlines

Labor: Mechanics likely will be blocked from job action. President seeks to prevent travel woes.

December 21, 2001|JAMES F. PELTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mechanics at United Airlines were poised to strike Thursday night but were expected to be barred by President Bush, who said he would order them to keep working to avoid disrupting the hectic holiday travel period.

The walkout by the 15,000 mechanics was set for 9:01 p.m. PST. But both the airline and the mechanics union, the International Assn. of Machinists, knew well in advance that the White House had vowed to block any strike at a major U.S. carrier. Indeed, earlier Thursday the president signed an executive order creating an emergency board that precludes a strike by reviewing the contract dispute for another 60 days. The mechanics will be forced to stay on the job during that time.

Bush "urges all parties to work together to resolve their differences," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, adding that Bush acted to prevent further problems for holiday travelers and the overall economy.

United, the second-largest carrier and a unit of UAL Corp., has urged customers to keep making reservations with the knowledge that the president was expected to act.

The airline said it would "continue intensive efforts to conclude a new contract" and that the parties "will be scheduling meetings soon toward that end."

The union has said it plans to plead its case before the new Presidential Emergency Board, even though it vigorously opposes the president's intervention in the dispute.

"Any political interference in negotiations is wrong," union President Tom Buffenbarger told the union's members via a Web-cast on Thursday. He noted that Congress could take the rare step of imposing a settlement if there is still no agreement after 60 days, which would mean his members "would lose the right to vote on a contract."

With both sides deadlocked, federal mediators in November gave them a 30-day "cooling-off" period that expired Thursday night, after which the mechanics were allowed to at least call their strike.

If Bush had not acted, the mechanics' strike against United undoubtedly would have caused bottlenecks in air travel.

United, based in suburban Chicago, has more than 1,600 flights a day and is the largest operator at Los Angeles International Airport.

The consequences of a job action against United were starkly evident in the summer of 2000, when the airline's pilots legally refused to fly overtime to protest their contract talks. Combined with bad weather in many parts of the U.S. and other problems, the pilots' action led to thousands of canceled or delayed flights.

The pilots eventually got a new contract, but the mechanics were still negotiating a new pact when the airline industry was rocked by the Sept. 11 attacks. Now there is pressure on all of United's unions to take pay cuts to help it weather the sharp downturn in air travel and its huge financial losses after the attacks.

The airline is still losing several million dollars a day.

Bush took similar emergency action against the mechanics for Northwest Airlines last March, forestalling a strike at the nation's fourth-largest airline.

The two sides then agreed on a new contract the next month. The United mechanics haven't had a pay raise in six years, because they and most other United employees gave up increased pay and benefits in exchange for stock in UAL, which is now 55% owned by its work force.

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