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Aug. 23--American Airlines' bankruptcy just got messier with its pilots union saying it will consider a strike if the carrier's parent corporation, AMR, scraps their contract and imposes "negative" new terms.
The board of the Allied Pilots Association on Wednesday agreed to start preparations for a strike vote and a spokesman said it could take place "within a matter of weeks."
The announcement comes after the company's move last week to ask U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Sean Lane a second time to throw out the union's existing contract and allow it to impose cost-saving changes. Lane rejected the company's first request, saying it had overreached in two of its cost-cutting proposals. American's new motion adjusted those provisions.
The pilots are the only union at American that failed to ratify a new cost-cutting contract with the carrier, with members voting overwhelmingly against it two weeks ago. Now it is the only union facing contract abrogation.
The APA's president resigned after the vote, and its new chief, Keith Wilson, met Wednesday with US Airways CEO Doug Parker, who has been wooing American's unions while attempting to bring about a merger of the two carriers, the union's website said.
AMR CEO Tom Horton, who has blown hot and cold on the merger question, told London's Financial Times on Aug. 12 that a decision on whether to pursue one would be made soon.
Because of federal laws that govern the airlines, it's difficult for pilots to strike, even outside of bankruptcy court. But APA spokesman Gregg Overman rejected suggestions that the call for a strike vote is a symbolic gesture.
Union attorneys maintain that the National Mediation Board still has jurisdiction even during bankruptcy reorganization, Overman said.
Moreover, a 2007 circuit court ruling that backed Northwest Airlines in a labor dispute with flight attendants while that carrier was in bankruptcy does not necessarily pertain.
"Our attorneys are well aware of the case," he said. "That case had a specific set of facts as does ours."
Not so, says American spokesman Bruce Hicks.
"Any form of job action by pilots would be unlawful, either before or after a decision by the court on the company's motion," Hicks said in an e-mailed statement.
"The situation we find ourselves in is a result of a democratic process through which our pilots rejected the tentative agreement American had reached with APA's leadership," he went on. "We'll continue to work toward a consensual deal with our pilots, consistent with what we have done with the APFA (flight attendants) and TWU (mechanics)."
Overman said the union will not break the law: "We are committed to a legal strike, only when it's legally permissible for us." "Most importantly," the union spokesman went on, "we are firmly committed to a consensual agreement that is in the best interest of everyone involved in the AMR restructuring."
As for the timing of the strike vote announcement, Overman said: "Our pilots expect us to resist any move by management to reject our contract. So preparations for strike balloting signals our strong resolve."
In the Northwest case, a lower court ruled that the flight attendants hadn't exhausted the negotiation process and therefore couldn't strike while the airline was in bankruptcy. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, saying that while the case was complicated, the flight attendants remained "intransigent" at a time when the airline needed to restructure.
"My guess is AMR would say the strike is illegal and seek an injunction against the strike," said Linda LaRue, a Dallas bankruptcy attorney with Quilling, Selander. "APA will keep moving forward until told to stop."
Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718; Twitter: @bshlachter
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