United Airlines announced a tentative agreement with the union representing its 12,800 mechanics and aircraft cleaners yesterday, less than 36 hours before a strike deadline.
The breakthrough came when union members won the right to approve terms of future concessions the airline sought in its financial-recovery plan, said Joseph Tiberi, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
“In spite of the condition of the carrier, we were able to achieve industry-leading compensation for our members,” Mr. Tiberi said. The top pay scale for United’s machinists would rise to $35.14 per hour from $25.60.
Union members also would receive retroactive pay and retirement benefits starting in December, as opposed to April 2004. The proposed contract also would let workers vote on any future wage concessions instead of forcing them to accept any givebacks that the company secures from other employees. The two sides also agreed to changes on additional pay for mechanics who hold two licenses.
The union scheduled a ratification vote for March 5. The mechanics were planning to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow.
“With the agreement, our customers can be confident that United will continue to operate without disruption,” Jack Creighton, chairman and chief executive officer of United parent UAL Corp., said in a statement.
The agreement also spares travelers, airport vendors and about 1,000 machinists union members in the Washington area from the disruption of a strike.
United the nation’s second-biggest airline operates a major hub out of Washington Dulles International Airport with 70 daily departures. It also operates 15 daily departures out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport and 11 out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
“A strike at United would have shut down operations completely at the carrier,” said Frank Larkin, the machinists’ spokesman in Washington.
He predicted the union’s members would ratify the contract during the March 5 vote.
“The negotiating committee is unanimously recommending a ‘yes’ vote,” he said.
Among those expressing satisfaction at the tentative agreement were administrators and vendors at Dulles.
“That’s obviously very good news,” said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. “United is very much a part of Dulles.”
About 70 percent of the air traffic at Dulles comes from United and its subsidiary, Atlantic Coast. The airport handles 55,000 to 60,000 travelers daily.
“If there’s no business, how can I pay the employees?” said Rolando Cuellar, assistant manager at the McDonald’s restaurant in Dulles’ Terminal C. “I hope nothing happens.”
United officials expressed similar sentiments.
“Reaching agreement with [the union] is a critical milestone in developing a recovery plan that meets the needs of passengers, preserves jobs and puts the company on the road to financial stability,” Mr. Creighton said.
The airline posted an industry record net loss of $2.1 billion in 2001. Crain’s Chicago Business reported yesterday the airline was consulting with bankruptcy attorneys.
President Bush intervened to avoid a strike as the year-end holiday travel season began by appointing a Presidential Emergency Board to negotiate a settlement. The board recommended a 37 percent pay increase for machinists.