Unions sound battle cry for pensions
By Joanne Kelley
Rocky Mountain News

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

United Airlines' flight attendants, who already authorized "chaos strikes" against the airline, and other United union workers vowed Tuesday to keep fighting for their pension plans.

"This is upsetting, but our fight is not over," said Sara Nelson Dela Cruz, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, after a ruling that allows the bankrupt parent company to terminate current plans for workers and retirees.
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"We're not going to step down and allow our pensions to go into the night."

She said the union would review its options, and she noted that members had "overwhelmingly authorized the use of chaos strikes," or intermittent, unannounced walkouts.

Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which includes baggage handlers and ticket agents, have been voting over the past several days on whether to authorize a strike.

Voting results will be released today.

"We are going to appeal (Tuesday's) ruling," said Joe Tiberi, a spokesman for the machinists.  "The pension termination will be devastating to thousands of retirees who have already seen their medical costs increase."

Tiberi said the union will go back into negotiations this week with the company over its labor contract.  The talks include the possibility of a replacement pension plan for members.

"If we cannot find a solution satisfactory to our membership, we will be guided by the strike vote," Tiberi said.

The union representing mechanics and airplane cleaners said it is also in talks with the company to negotiate a replacement pension plan.

A union spokesman said the bankruptcy court ruling marks the third time its members have suffered a blow to their retirement programs.

In one case, employees gave up wages in return for company stock.

"That stock is worthless now," said Bill Moons, spokesman for the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.  "That stock could only be cashed in when we retired.  The average mechanic lost $60,000."

With the termination of pension plans, Moons said a mechanic who spent 20 years with United "will probably not receive enough money to put food on his table for a month."

The flight attendants' union said it would continue its calls for an ouster of the company's current management.

"It's clear we've got to replace this management," Dela Cruz said.

She would not comment on whether flight attendants would act on the strike authorization vote by walking out on random flights.  An industry observer said potential strikes by flight attendants would be most damaging if they coincide with walkouts by other workers.

"Where it gets a little dicier is if the mechanics are also striking," said Tim Winship, publisher of the Web site FrequentFlier.com.  "That would make it that much more difficult for United to keep the traffic flowing. United has revenue and profitability problems enough."

United's pension agreement

UAL Corp.'s United Airlines reached an agreement with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. to terminate United's four employee pension plans, and a U.S. bankruptcy court judge OK'd the plan on Tuesday. The four plans are:

  UA Pilot Defined Benefit Plan:  Covers 14,100 participants and has $2.8 billion in assets to pay $5.7 billion in promised benefits.

  United Airlines Ground Employees Retirement Plan:  Covers 36,100 participants and has $1.3 billion in assets to pay $4 billion in promised benefits.

  UA Flight Attendant Defined Benefit Pension Plan:  Covers 28,600 participants and has $1.4 billion in assets to pay $3.3 billion in promised benefits.

  Management, Administrative and Public Contact Defined Benefit Pension Plan:  Covers 42,700 participants and has $1.5 billion in assets to pay $3.8 billion in promised benefits.

kelleyj@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-5068