United, Pilots Tentatively Settle Back-to-Work Issues
After a night of secret talks in Chicago, negotiators for United Airlines and its striking pilots Wednesday tentatively settled the thorny back-to-work issues that have prolonged the crippling 28-day strike against the nation’s largest airline.
The pilots union’s Master Executive Council, which must ratify the agreement on behalf of United’s 5,200 pilots, met for several hours Wednesday night to study the agreement but adjourned until today without taking a vote. As a result, the airline, which has been able to fly only about 14% of its normal 1,550-flight schedule, did not announce resumption of full service.
The announcement of the settlement, reached under the supervision of the National Mediation Board, came as a surprise.
United and the Air Line Pilots Assn. had broken off talks more than two weeks ago and had settled into a war of attrition that seemed likely to idle most of the airline’s planes through the summer travel season.
United, claiming that it would “rebuild” the airline in the next nine months by hiring thousands of new pilots to replace the strikers, subsequently rejected separate requests from the pilots union and the mediation board to resume negotiations.
At stake were two key collective bargaining issues: whether management could give seniority preference to non-strikers and whether one union could bargain on behalf of another.
All but about 300 of the airline’s pilots have honored the picket line, as have a large majority of United’s flight attendants, who are represented by the Assn. of Flight Attendants.
The two sides negotiated a compromise two-tier pact a week after the strike began. It called for the wage scale for new pilots to catch up to the pay of previously hired pilots after 12 years. That settled the strike’s key economic issue, but it left hanging several unresolved back-to-work questions created by the walkout itself.
In an effort to reward the approximately 300 pilots who stayed on the job, the airline planned to give them “super seniority” in bidding for future assignments. The pilots said they would not return to work unless seniority was maintained at pre-strike levels.
In addition, the pilots demanded that United place on its employment roster about 500 pilot trainees who were trained in the months before the strike and were scheduled to be hired on the day the strike began. All but a handful of the trainees, who were heavily lobbied by the pilots association, refused to cross the picket line. United officials--surprised and embarrassed by the wholesale support for the strike--vowed that they would never hire the trainees.
A final sticking point in negotiations involved United’s flight attendants. The pilots demanded that the airline drop its plan to give seniority benefits to non-striking attendants; United said the pilots have no jurisdiction to represent the attendants.
Lee Howard, executive vice president of Airline Economics, a Washington industry consulting firm, said the tentative settlement surprised him because the strike had taken on “all the earmarks of being a long one” and because “there was a lot of the pride factor in there.”
Walter Strow, a United pilot and spokesman for strikers in Los Angeles, said pilots were in a state of “restrained excitement. We’ll believe it when we see it signed. We’ve been on this roller coaster before,” he said, alluding to a near-settlement reached May 24.
The strike has cost the airline an estimated $5 million a day and has forced most United passengers to use other carriers.
Because the number of customers on many scheduled flights has been significantly higher, airline industry operating profits have increased by about $100 million during the strike--even when United’s losses are taken into consideration, according to a study by Howard’s firm.
The heaviest economic loss has been suffered by Hawaii, which estimates that the strike has cost the state $57 million in direct income. United usually carries half of the passengers between the mainland and Hawaii, but it reduced its daily flights to two from 22 during the strike. Other airlines have increased their Hawaii flights, but the number of tourists flying in each day is still about 20% below normal.
Warning on Tourism
The state’s lieutenant governor, John Waihee, flew to Chicago on Tuesday to urge representatives of the pilots and the airline to settle the strike. He warned that hotels, restaurants and other businesses that depend on tourism might begin laying off up to 40% of their workers this week.
United’s pilots, whose salaries average $85,000 a year, struck over the airline’s proposal to sharply cut the pay of newly hired pilots by creating a separate wage scale for them. Similar “two-tier” systems have been adopted by several other airlines. Like those carriers, United contends that competitive fare-cutting in the deregulated airline industry requires dramatic savings in labor costs.
Representatives of the flight attendants union met with United officials Wednesday to discuss a separate back-to-work agreement. The pilots union said its 27-member Master Executive Council will not ratify the pilots’ back-to-work settlement unless attendants are satisfied.
No indications were given Wednesday on what either the pilots or the airline gave up in Tuesday night’s negotiations. Union spokesmen said the compromise had been submitted to the two sides by the mediation board’s chairwoman, Helen Witt. During the final hours of the last negotiations between the pilots and United two weeks ago, Witt proposed a back-to-work agreement that both sides rejected.
Since then, United focused most of its efforts on its Denver training facility, where scores of new job applicants have been arriving each day to be interviewed for new pilot positions.
The airline added five daily flights Tuesday between Chicago and Denver and three between Chicago and Detroit, raising its number of daily flights to 223.