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United Continental pilots OK potential strike

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United Continental pilots OK potential strike

United Continental pilots voted to approve a potential strike Tuesday, hinting at growing frustrations as labor talks with management continue. Industry insiders doubt whether a work stoppage will actually occur.

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Airline pilots embroiled in labor negotiations with their employer, Chicago-based United Continental Holdings, voted Tuesday to authorize a potential strike.

Experts say the vote is more a matter of procedure than an actual call for a work stoppage. For a strike to actually occur, the Air Line Pilots Association—the union representing the United Continental pilots—would need approval from a number of federal organizations, as well as President Barack Obama.

MIT airline labor expert Bill Swelbar said he does not expect a strike to occur, given the political and economic ramifications.

“Just given the fragility of the economic recovery, I think the government would be hard-pressed to say that a strike by an airline the size of United Continental is in the best interest of the flying public and the national economy,” Swelbar said.

He added that such a work stoppage could be particularly damaging to an Obama adminstration facing a brutal campaign leading up to November’s presidential election.

United Continental Holdings spokesperson Megan McCarthy said in a statement the company is not surprised by the vote.

“This is not uncommon at this point in negotiations and was expected. The vote results alone do not permit the union to take any action, as there are several other procedural steps required under the Railway Labor Act,” she said, referring to the federal law governing such labor talks.

In another statement released Tuesday, however, a representative for Continental pilots hinted at growing tensions between both sides as labor talks continue.

“This vote indicates the level of frustration our pilots have with management’s disinterest in reaching a conclusion to negotiations,” said Capt. Jay Pierce, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) unit representing Continental pilots.

Meanwhile, a United pilots spokesperson said he hopes a strike authorization vote speeds up negotiations.

“We’d like the company to take notice of our recent strike vote, realize the resolution of this pilot group and do what it can to push forward on these negotiations and resolve this. That would be better for us, we think better for the company overall, and we think better for our customers,” said Dan Swanson, Communications Committee Chairman for the United Master Executive Council of Air Line Pilots Association.

“A strike is never the preferred path to reaching agreement, but our pilots have demonstrated that they realize it may be necessary.”

Swanson said Wednesday airline pilots are asking for the highest salaries in the airline industry. Although he did not provide a specific amount, he said ALPA wants pay rates equal to pilots at Delta Airlines--the current industry leader.

Swelbar, who is familiar with the talks, estimated in an interview Wednesday pilots want new wages set at $200,000 per year. This is a cost, he said, United Continental likely could not afford.

“It sounds like a fairly aggressive ask and I would imagine the two sides are pretty far apart when comes to the bid and the ask,” Swelbar said.

Labor negotiations have been going on since 2010, when United and Continental--both facing dire financial situations at the time--merged. However, Swelbar said the fact that a salary number is even being discussed means a resolution may not be far off.

“It could conceivably be done by November,” he said.

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