Skies Still Looking Stormy For Unionized Airline Workers

But United Airlines is taking steps to reconcile with employees

AIRLINE employees are flying high after recently prevailing in their confrontations with management. However, the skies ahead are not necessarily friendly for airborne unionized workers.

The management of United Airlines made a conciliatory gesture to two of its unions by renewing negotiations on Dec. 1 over a possible employee buyout of the carrier. An earlier round of talks broke down on Nov. 12, with the unions asserting that management was inflexible.

Flight attendants at American Airlines, meanwhile, have ridden a strong updraft since Nov. 22, when President Clinton intervened in a five-day strike and compelled American Chairman Robert Crandall to agree to binding arbitration.

Still, many unionized workers are likely to face difficult times due to the prospects for continued losses by the large carriers in the brutally competitive airline business, experts say.

The biggest United States carriers continued their price war Friday by cutting winter fares by up to 35 percent for travel from Jan. 6-March 31, typically a period of low passenger travel.

Mr. Clinton has pledged to help unionized workers by supporting a bill that would bar companies from hiring replacements for strikers. The House has approved the Striker Replacement Bill and it is scheduled to go before the Senate next month, where it is expected to face strenuous opposition.

Still, some analysts question Clinton's commitment to labor, since he recently overlooked the objections of many unions when he pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress.

``It remains to be seen how much effort President Clinton will put in to trying to round up votes for the Striker Replacement Bill,'' says Irving Bluestone, a professor of labor studies at Wayne State University and former vice president of the United Auto Workers.

Since the US economy is now dependent more on fragmented service and high-tech jobs, rather than manufacturing, organized labor is weaker than in years past.

During their heyday in 1953, unions represented 36 percent of workers in the private sector. Today that has dropped to just 10 percent, says Leo Troy, professor of economics at Rutgers University.

``The union movement is losing ground and it will continue to lose ground,'' says Dr. Troy, a specialist in labor relations.

US workers also must increasingly compete with low-wage workers overseas. NAFTA promises to accelerate continental economic integration.

United flight attendants recently felt the sting of foreign competition when the airline, despite the workers' strong opposition, opened a base for flight attendants in Taiwan. Attendants walked out of talks on a buyout with management on Sept. 30 because of the decision to launch the new offshore facility.

In the current talks, unions and management at United are negotiating over how much the workers must surrender in pay and benefits in order to acquire a 60 percent share in the airline.

The unions last month valued their package of concessions at $5.5 billion, but management said it was worth far less.

The talks are the sixth time the Air Line Pilots Association has tried to buy out United.

Industry analysts say that if management does not work out an acceptable scheme with the unions, United could continue to downsize and consider breaking into smaller regional carriers. In a move that has made unions unhappy, United's management has already started a piecemeal sale of the carrier, including 15 in-flight kitchens.

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