The three-week-old pilots strike at United Airlines has reached an awkward turning point. The union and company have settled the economic issue that originally divided them. That was the company's insistence on a two-tier wage system. To help it adjust to the price competition that has come with airline deregulation, it wanted a lower pay scale for future pilots than for those already on the payroll. The union finally agreed to two tiers for five years. At the end of the five years, the two sides would either reach a longer-term agreement or go to binding arbitration.
The strike goes on because two new issues have arisen. They are less easy to resolve because they involve pride and come couched in terms of loyalty and prerogative. The first has to do withthe roughly 250 United pilots (out of more than 5,000) who have crossed the picket line over the last three weeks and flown. The airline wants to reward them by moving them up the seniority ladder. Among several other things, higher seniority means choicer flights. The union says the normal rules of disengagement in labor strife should apply, and these pilots, like everyone else, should return to the status quo ante.
More troublesome is the question of what should happen to about 570 other pilots whom United had been training, but who had not yet become full- fledged employees or members of the pilots' bargaining unit when the strike began. United says that, absent a strike, its plan was to use these newcomers to expand service. Given the strike, it hoped to use them to maintain service. Instead, almost all the trainees stuck with the union and stayed home. Partly as a result, United, the nation's largest airline, has been able to fly only about 15 percent of its normal schedule.
In a way it was these would-be pilots for whom the union was bargaining in the first place, since they would be the first to feel the effects of the two-tier wage. The union now wants the company to hire the 570 as planned. The company, miffed that the trainees took the union's side, is balking. It says that hiring decisions are a management prerogative, an area in which the union has no right to interfere. Yesterday, United declined an invitation of the federal mediator to return to the bargaining table. Some issues, the company said, are "outside the legal bargaining jurisdiction" of the union, and "United will not bargain on these issues."
An understandable position, but a starchy and risky one. The company opens itself to the charge -- justified or not -- that it now seeks not just a wage concession, but to break or demean the union. The company says that is not its goal. If not, and if the union is also as reasonable as it professes to be, it ought to be possible to end the strike. It's time.