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United Mechanic, Cleaners Union Threatens to Strike - 2002-02-15

The union representing mechanics and cleaning crews at United States-based United Airlines has rejected a contract proposal, but will resume talks with airline officials this week to try to avoid a strike.

United's 13,000 mechanics and cleaners could walk off the job next week unless their union and the airline can agree to a new contract. The union membership rejected a proposal that would have given some workers pay increases as high as 37-percent. Mechanics and cleaners at United have not gotten a pay raise since 1994.

United lost more than $2 billion last year. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, it laid off 20,000 workers and reduced its flight schedule. Despite the airline's financial troubles, the mechanics' union president, Tom Buffenbarger, says the airline needs to come up with a better contract.

"We are going to hold Jack Creighton, the chairman of United, to his word in his public statements that he took this job as chairman not to preside over a bankruptcy, but to stabilize and grow this airline," he said.

The pay increase the union rejected was proposed by an emergency board appointed by President Bush in December. Union members did not like a provision in the contract requiring workers to give back part of the new pay raise to help the financially-troubled carrier.

United spokesman Joe Hopkins has said the airline regrets that the union turned down the contract proposal, but is hopeful talks that resume Friday will be productive.

"To figure out what the sticking points were and see if there is some way that can be addressed so that a contract could be ratified and a strike could be averted," he said.

A walkout could begin as soon as next Wednesday, unless there is a settlement or unless President Bush asks Congress to intervene. That has never happened in an airline labor dispute. The union is urging the government to stay out of this matter and let the two parties work out a new contract themselves.