- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

Contract negotiations broke off yesterday between United Airlines and the union representing its 24,000 ramp and public-contact workers, laying the groundwork for a 30-day countdown to a strike.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers asked the National Mediation Board to declare an impasse after the two sides failed to agree on a pay rate.

"A contract now would have been the best outcome for United's employees, passengers and shareholders," said Randy Canale, the machinists' lead negotiator. "Regrettably, the company's proposals were not industry leading for all employees."

Local 1759 of the machinists union represents about 3,000 workers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport. Nearly half of them are reservation agents or ticket agents. Most of the others are ramp or store workers, food-service employees and security guards.

The machinists union filed a request with the National Mediation Board yesterday to be released from negotiations. If the board fails to resolve the dispute through arbitration, the union is authorized by federal law to strike after 30 days.

United officials described the breakdown as "a pause in negotiations." Union officials say the ultimatum of a strike deadline is the only way to end negotiations that have continued for 27 months.

"The next step is up to the Mediation Board," said United spokesman Joe Hopkins. "We're prepared to resume talks when they say so."

He disagreed with the union's petition for an impasse to clear the way for a strike.

"We don't think it's appropriate at this time," Mr. Hopkins said.

In recent weeks, negotiations have made significant progress, he said. He also said service to passengers would not be disrupted.

Machinists' spokesman Joe Tiberi said the airline left the union with no better option.

"The negotiations that have been ongoing have not been fruitful," Mr. Tiberi said. "Without a release into a cooling-off period and a strike deadline, we don't believe United will be able to conclude these negotiations."

Neither airline nor union officials would discuss the amount of the disputed pay rates.

A contract dispute between United and its mechanics ended March 5 after the airline agreed to pay increases as high as 37 percent for senior mechanics.

The ramp and public-contact employees are asking for similar increases.

United has argued in labor negotiations that the record $2.1 billion loss it suffered from operations last year impairs its ability to grant pay raises.

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