- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2002

CHICAGO (AP) United Airlines mechanics voted yesterday to reject a contract offer that would grant them industry-leading pay, but require them to give back some of those wages soon to aid the struggling carrier's recovery effort.
The vote also authorized a strike, which could begin as soon as Feb. 20 unless there is a last-minute settlement or congressional action to block it.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers had predicted that the 12,800 mechanics and cleaners were likely to reject the contract, although the vote outcome remained uncertain until early this morning. The strike required a two-thirds supporting vote for authorization.
United mechanics have not received a raise since 1994 and have been working under the terms of the old contract for 19 months.
Many are angry after years of turmoil between labor and management at the 55 percent employee-owned carrier.
The airline's offer, recommended by an emergency board appointed by President Bush in December, called for immediate pay raises of as much as 37 percent.
A top United mechanic paid $25.60 an hour would receive a raise to $35.14 immediately and to $37.54 by mid-2004, surpassing the $34 received by American Airlines mechanics.
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 eight quarterly payments beginning in April 2003.
United, which laid off 20,000 employees and slashed its schedule after the September 11 terrorist attacks, says employee concessions are necessary if it is to recover from last year's record-setting $2.1 billion loss.
Aviation industry analyst Sam Buttrick of UBS Warburg had said that even if the contract vote failed, a strike is "very unlikely."
Both sides have said they are prepared to return to the bargaining table quickly.
In a taped message to employees over the weekend, Chief Executive Jack Creighton of United parent UAL Corp. called the balloting "more than just a contract vote."
"It's historic in a way, because it's a choice between moving forward and stopping in our tracks," he said.
Once the two-year 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.
"If we get both contracts settled, I would be very optimistic," Mr. Creighton said in an interview last week. "For the first time in close to two years, we'd have labor stability in this company."

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