Pension Issues Snag United, Union Talks

CHICAGO (AP) -- Unable yet to negotiate an agreement on a new long-term contract, United Airlines and its machinists union returned to a bankruptcy courtroom Thursday to resume arguing whether the union's contract should be broken in the absence of a deal.

The failure to wrap up a contract agreement left hanging the issue of a possible strike by United workers, who have threatened to walk off their jobs if lower pay and benefits are imposed without a consensual deal.

Negotiators for both sides were racing to beat a new unofficial deadline of late Friday morning, when closing arguments in the case are scheduled and a ruling to break the contract could soon follow.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers scheduled testimony from two witnesses at the court session late Thursday to bolster its argument that United is seeking excessive concessions from workers. Both principal IAM economist Tom Roth, the president of Alexandria, Va.-based Labor Bureau Inc., and Tom Brickner, a top negotiator as the union's airline coordinator, are longtime veterans of United's labor talks.

Attorneys for the two sides indicated that the inability to reach an agreement during the two-day recess granted by the judge to focus on negotiations did not signify the talks were blocked. The previous night's bargaining session lasted until 3 a.m.

''It's just a lot of things trying to happen in a short period of time,'' United attorney Alexander Dimitrief told reporters.

IAM spokesman Joseph Tiberi said pensions were ''definitely the main sticking point'' in the talks. Besides wages and benefits, the two sides are negotiating over a defined-contribution pension plan to replace the defined-benefits plan United is terminating as part of a companywide push to cut labor costs.

United, a unit of Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based UAL Corp., was seeking annual concessions totaling $176 million over five years from machinists to complete a targeted $700 million in labor cost reductions.

The IAM represents about 20,000 public-contact employees, baggage handlers and other ground workers at United.