United Reservation Agents Gird for Strike

United Airlines workers in its Dearborn reservation center, Metro Airport and elsewhere are preparing to strike if a bankruptcy judge in Chicago lets the carrier kill current contracts in favor of lower pay and benefits.

Meanwhile, the airline and its mechanics union reached a tentative agreement on a new 5-year contract Monday night, moving United a step closer to securing the companywide labor concessions it seeks in order to exit bankruptcy.

The union that represents agents at the reservation center told employees to pack their belongings and be ready to walk off the job immediately.

Employees also will be ready to walk off the job at Metro Airport, said Stephen Gordon, president of Romulus-based Local 141 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

The airline employs about 630 people at the reservation center in Dearborn and at Detroit Metro Airport, United spokesman David Dimmer told the Free Press on Monday.

"We are working to a consensual resolution," Dimmer said.

The airline, which operates out of the Smith Terminal, runs between 20 and 30 flights out of Metro Airport a day. In March, the airline handled nearly 2% of the passengers at Metro Airport.

"We will do every single thing in our power to preserve our jobs, our pensions and our health care. Whatever it takes, we will do. It's not a threat, it's a reality," Gordon said.

The machinists, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association and the Association of Flight Attendants said they would strike if United breaks the contracts.

The machinists are still negotiating with the company.

Other airlines are not required to accommodate passengers of an airline that is experiencing a strike, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.

The mechanics union deal was announced as a federal bankruptcy court trial on United's proposal to unilaterally impose lower wages and benefits moved into its final days.

It would give United the $96 million in annual wage and benefit cuts it was seeking from the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, union spokesman Terry O'Rourke said late Monday.

The agreement has yet to be ratified by the 7,000 mechanics at United. They rejected the last tentative agreement in January, with 57% voting no.

The results of the new ratification vote will be released May 31, the union said.

"It's not something to celebrate," O'Rourke said of the agreement. "We are under the coercion of the bankruptcy court process, and we made the best of bad choices."

United officials did not immediately return calls for comment Monday night.

The company and unions are trying to wrap up deals before Judge Eugene Wedoff rules on United's motion to replace existing contracts with lower pay and benefits.

United finished presenting its case on Monday, and Wedoff scheduled closing arguments in the trial for Thursday. It is unclear whether a ruling would come immediately afterward.United is seeking annual wage and benefit cuts totaling $176 million from machinists and $96 million from mechanics as part of targeted labor savings of $700 million yearly.

It says it needs the second round of cutbacks in two years so it can persuade banks to lend it $2 billion to help it leave Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Michael Dingboom, United's director of financial planning, testified that the company is likely to violate its bankruptcy lenders' monthly financial requirements by August if it doesn't get the sought-for labor cuts.

That violation would require United to obtain a waiver from the banks in order to retain its interim bankruptcy financing.

Dingboom also said that while the price of oil has declined recently, fuel prices remain volatile and the company can't count on lasting financial benefits from an improvement in that category alone.