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US Airways Mechanics Not Hopeful

Walkout Possible If Contract Is Voided

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page E01

The head of the mechanics union at US Airways said yesterday the group is not optimistic about reaching an agreement with the airline before a critical hearing Thursday and raised the prospect that the unit could walk off the job if a court allows the current labor contract to be voided.

US Airways Group Inc. has asked the union to accept substantial pay and job cuts and, failing that, has asked a U.S. bankruptcy judge to allow it to nullify the contract. Federal Bankruptcy Judge Stephen S. Mitchell is scheduled to rule on that request Thursday.

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US Airways

Randy Canale, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers unit at US Airways, said the group could choose to "withhold our services" if the contract is voided. The timing of the action would depend on how much additional time -- if any -- the judge grants both sides to reach a consensual agreement. Mitchell has urged both sides to come to an agreement, but US Airways has insisted that it needs to make the cuts by mid-January, when aircraft payments are due.

Negotiators were scheduled to return to the bargaining table today. Canale said the group was still "focused" on reaching an agreement with US Airways executives. But reaching an agreement doesn't seem likely, he said.

"I can't say we're optimistic. We're not even close," he added.

Christopher L. Chiames, US Airways' senior vice president of corporate affairs, said the airline would "continue to try to reach consensual agreements" with the union, he said, "just as we have done with all other work groups."

Under the Railway Labor Act, airline workers are barred from walking off their jobs before negotiations overseen by the National Mediation Board have been exhausted.

Union officials say the act's strike prohibition applies as long as a contract is in place. But if Mitchell nullifies the machinists' contract, the group said, it would no longer be bound by the federal rule.

Colorado-based airline consultant Michael J. Boyd of the Boyd Group and other observers have said it is not clear that workers have the right to strike if the contract is nullified. But, Boyd said, whether US Airways machinists can walk off their jobs may not be that important because simply preparing for a walkout would be the beginning of the end for the airline.

"We're kind of talking about should we drill another hole in the bottom of the Titanic," Boyd said. "If you go on strike now, fine, but don't walk the picket line, just go to the unemployment office. . . . By the time they work out the logistics of it, US Air will be long gone."

The union, which represents 3,600 US Airways mechanics and baggage handlers, has adamantly opposed the airline's demand for more than $225 million in concessions, which amounts to a cut in pay and benefits of up to 23 percent.

Relations between the machinists and US Airways have steadily worsened in recent weeks. During the Christmas weekend, US Airways canceled about 450 flights and misplaced thousands of pieces of luggage. US Airways executives quickly blamed workers and bad weather for the disruptions. But Canale said the airline has been poorly managed, especially at its Philadelphia hub.

US Airways -- which employs about 28,000 workers -- said it must secure nearly $1 billion in annual labor cost savings within the coming weeks to remain in business, and the machinists group is the only union at the nation's seventh-largest carrier to not negotiate a deal. US Airways flight attendants are scheduled to vote on a proposal tomorrow.

If the flight attendants vote against their revised contract, then they would also be subject to Mitchell's ruling.

Staff writer Greg Schneider contributed to this report.

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