Long-brewing 'storm' hits USAir family zTC Husband on strike

wife may be laid off

October 06, 1992|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Yesterday came the moment aircraft mechanic John Rittenhouse had been anticipating for nearly three years: His union went on strike against his company, USAir.

"When a storm is coming, you know it's coming," Mr. Rittenhouse, 42, said yesterday in the living room of his home in Ferndale in Anne Arundel County. "We've been without a contract for 32 months. We knew this [job issue] was coming up."

This particular storm could hit Mr. Rittenhouse and his family of five children, ranging in age from 20 years to 10 months, with gale force: His wife, Kerri, a non-unionized baggage loader at USAir, could be laid off if the strike continues to curtail flights.

"It's a good possibility. We'll jump off that bridge when we come to it," Mr. Rittenhouse conceded with a rueful laugh.

This is the first time the veteran airline mechanic -- who has worked for the past 13 years for USAir and one of its predecessor airlines, Piedmont -- has been on strike. But he feels he is reasonably well prepared for whatever might happen.

For one thing, there is the $12,000 he and Kerri have salted away in a 401(k) retirement plan partly as a personal strike fund, which they could tap into in an emergency.

For another, there are the skills he has developed as a licensed Airframe and Power Plant ("A & P" in airline jargon) mechanic, which can involve everything from working on a jet's flight controls to fixing the air conditioning and lavatories.

"I can do anything mechanical. I can go out and get a job [somewhere] other than at McDonald's," Mr. Rittenhouse said.

With his $1,300-a-month mortgage paid up until November, he figures he can wait awhile before he gets another job. But with a $600-a-month food bill, $350 in car payments and $160-a-month utility bill -- and strike benefits of only $100 a week -- he won't wait too long.

He also knows that whatever he might wind up doing doesn't figure to pay him as much as the $21 an hour he was making as an airline mechanic.

"I realize I'm going to have to start at a lower scale," he said. "But it doesn't matter how much you make. You gotta be satisfied where you are working."

Besides, he said, the issue of the strike isn't wages. His union has already agreed to an 8 percent reduction in wages above $20,000 a year as part of a companywide cost-cutting move, which he figures will cost him about $1,600 a year, or enough to eliminate the annual family summer vacation.

Rather, he stressed, the issue is job security -- in particular the company's desire to use unskilled workers to tow planes from the gates and contract workers to clean and de-ice the planes, work that is now done by the machinists. He also said changes in work rules could force mechanics with enough seniority to keep their jobs to move to another city, with no payment for moving expenses.

"I'm no more trying to be a hero than anyone else. We're trying to keep the status quo," he said.

Mr. Rittenhouse gathered his children together to explain why he was going on strike and to try to allay any fears they might have. He was only partially successful.

"I'm nervous about it," one of the children, Talla, 11, said yesterday after returning home from school.

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