- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

CHICAGO (AP) United Airlines scheduled urgent new talks with its mechanics union yesterday after the rejection of a contract offer that talked openly of the need for employee concessions.
The union's rejection of the contract set the stage for a possible strike as early as midnight Tuesday.
Officials at the world's second-biggest airline agreed to meet with union negotiators in Chicago starting Friday, just 4 days before the mechanics can legally strike.
Both the airline and industry analysts played down the likelihood of a walkout, which would be the first at Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based United since pilots struck for 29 days in 1985. United was scrambling to improve its offer to forestall a strike, which it can ill afford on the heels of a record $2.1 billion annual loss.
"The company just can't take a prolonged strike," said ABN Amro analyst Ray Neidl, suggesting United parent UAL Corp. may be forced to make substantial concessions. "It would put them into bankruptcy."
Union leaders expressed a willingness to meet around the clock if necessary to avoid a strike at the airline, which is 55 percent employee-owned. They said the previous offer crafted by an emergency board appointed by President Bush should serve as "a basis for settlement."
"We don't want to negotiate a strike," said Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. "We want a new contract, a good contract, that will meet the needs and expectations of our members."
In order to keep from being grounded, United must swiftly figure out how to quell the anger of the 12,800 mechanics and cleaners, who haven't received a raise in eight years.
Spokesman Joe Hopkins said the airline was working to find out why the contract was voted down by a 68 percent majority Tuesday, with 86 percent authorizing a strike in a separate vote.
"We are going to do everything humanly possible to avoid a strike," he said.
An imposed settlement is possible through congressional intervention if Mr. Bush requests it. But United was not counting on that scenario because Congress goes on a lengthy recess after today's session.
While the rejected offer called for mechanics to be paid better than at any other airline, including raises of as much as 37 percent for senior mechanics, union members were unhappy with a provision that asked them to agree to unspecified wage concessions as part of United's financial-recovery plan. They also objected to not receiving retroactive pay before April 2003.
United mechanics last struck in 1979, for 58 days.
Airline officials declined to say if a strike would fully shut down operations, expressing confidence a settlement can be reached that would avert any interruption of operations.
"Yesterday's contract vote … was a disappointment, but it's not the end of the road," UAL Chairman and Chief Executive Jack Creighton told employees in a taped message. "If we make progress during these negotiations, we anticipate another vote will occur by mid-March, and that we won't see any disruption of our service."
UAL's stock initially plunged 9 percent, but recovered on hopes a strike will be averted. The stock closed down 58 cents, or 4.7 percent, at $11.81 on the New York Stock Exchange.
Analyst Michael Friedman of American Express Financial Advisors suggested that union leaders and members are disinclined to strike and are likely to accept a modestly sweetened offer.
"Almost by tradition, they can't accept the first offer," he said. "It's a big game of chicken, and everybody is going to give at the same time."

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