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Grounded: Could United Airlines mechanics move to strike?

United Airlines maintenance workers could be on the path to a strike after rejecting the airline's contract offer. But the mechanics could face roadblocks from federal labor management officials or the president before walking out.

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    Travelers check in at the United Airlines ticket counter at Terminal 1 in O'Hare International Airport in Chicago in 2013.
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United Airlines mechanics voted Tuesday to to reject a new contract offer from the carrier, opening the door for the possibility of a strike by the union.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters said that 93 percent of the maintenance workers who voted on United’s offer chose not to accept it, with more than 7,800 of the 9,000 workers in the bargaining unit voting on whether to accept the United bid.

“The membership has spoken clearly. The final offer from United Airlines was soundly rejected today and the membership has authorized a strike because of the substandard proposition,” said Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa in a union release. “At a time when United Airlines is incredibly profitable, it is clear that mechanics deserve a better offer from the company. United is profitable because of the dedication, passion and professionalism of their workers and the carrier needs to reflect those characteristics in their negotiating position.”

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The Chicago-based airline, which has recently seen an upward trend in its profitability, reportedly offered mechanics a 25 percent raise and a bonus system that would average $9,000 per worker, but provisions for new employees were not up to union standards.

“There is no need to place the financial burden for this agreement on the backs of future mechanics. Executives at United Airlines are being compensated with million-dollar packages and the mechanics deserve their fair share,” Teamsters’ Airline Division director Capt. David Bourne said.

“United needs to come back to the table and deliver an industry-leading contract for our hardworking mechanics,” added Mr. Hoffa.

The workers’ rejection the United proposal comes after years of negotiation between the two sides. The airline has not reached a labor resolution since United and Continental Airlines announced a deal that merged the two carriers in 2010 and was completed in 2012. United has yet to reach a contract agreement with its maintenance workers and those coming from Continental since that merger.

“Negotiations can be difficult, and although we are disappointed by this outcome we are eager to get right back to the table,” said United Airlines President and Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz in a release. Mr. Munoz was promoted to CEO in September and will likely resume work for United within the coming months after an illness last fall. 

“Our technicians are the best in the business, making our product and operation better and more reliable every day. I will personally meet with our labor leaders to make sure we reach an agreement that will work for our technicians,” Munoz said.

The union’s decision to send back United’s bid and Teamsters’ announcement that it will petition the National Mediation Board to end contract talks and begin a strike could signal the potential for a walkout in the future, although it is unlikely the airline or the federal government would let it come to that.

If the Board accepts the Teamster strike request, the two sides will have 30 days to reach a final deal after which there would be a “very high likelihood” of federal intervention to prevent a nationally disruptive strike, the president of the labor consulting firm F&H Solutions Group, Jerry Glass told Reuters. In the event of a strike, the outcomes of previous incidents would suggest that the president would appoint an emergency board to avert travel and trade disruptions and work out a solution for the airline and its employees.

While negotiations between the maintenance workers and United are up in the air, the carrier did have success in mediating talks with the Professional Airline Flight Control Association (PAFCA). United and PAFCA announced Tuesday the airline will extend contracts for more than 420 of its dispatchers through 2021.

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