Flight attendants at United may strike

Walkouts tied to airline's plan to shed pensions

June 30, 2005|By Mark Skertic | Mark Skertic,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

United Airlines flight attendants say they could begin random walkouts tomorrow, just ahead of the busy Independence Day weekend, if the airline goes ahead with its decision to turn over their pension plan to the federal government.

"We're continuing our fight to save our plan," Sarah Nelson Dela Cruz, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, said yesterday. She said a strike campaign could be one of the tactics used to achieve that.

If the union follows through with threats not to board aircraft, it could cripple United's system, because federal regulations stipulate that planes must have flight attendants.

The federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. today plans to assume administration of the pension plan covering United's flight attendants and another covering management, administrative and public-contact workers.

Shedding the pension plan will change the terms of the union's contract with the airline, opening the door to a strike, Dela Cruz said.

In a message on the union's Web site, strike co-coordinator Ellen Boone urged members to "remain focused on our efforts to save our pensions and reject any assertions by the company or any other group that our actions are in vain."

A United spokeswoman said that "any actions to disrupt our operations would be illegal and would only punish our customers and employees."

"The AFA is the only union whose leadership has yet to negotiate a replacement plan for the employees they represent," said Jean Medina. "We are prepared to meet with the AFA at any time to negotiate a replacement pension plan, as we have with all the other unions."

Even the threat of a strike could hurt United, which lost $93 million in May.

"They have every reason to be angry," Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, a Colorado-based airline consultant, said of the flight attendants. "It's an awful thing that's happening to them. But the solution isn't to kill the airline."

The union has been fighting efforts to kill its pension plan on several fronts. It appealed an order by a U.S. bankruptcy judge in Chicago that allows the pension agency to assume control of its retirement plan.

It also has appealed a decision by a federal judge in Washington denying the union's request for an injunction to prevent the plans from being taken over by the agency.

The agency has taken over the ground workers' plan, but assumption of the pilots' pension program has been delayed by litigation over the date the move to the pension agency takes effect.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment that would prevent the agency from spending any money to take over United's pensions. However, its chances of becoming law are considered remote because of opposition in the Senate and by the White House.

The carrier announced late last year that it was unlikely to attract the financing it needs to leave bankruptcy protection if it remained saddled with its nearly $10 billion in unfunded pension obligations. Since reaching the deal on its pensions and obtaining other concessions from workers, United has said it expects to exit bankruptcy this fall.

United has said it plans to replace its company-sponsored plans with less expensive retirement benefits, such as a 401(k). Such plans often are less appealing to workers because the payout amount isn't guaranteed.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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