WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pilots’ union leaders at United Continental Holdings (UAL.N), parent of the world’s biggest carrier United Airlines, called on Thursday for its members to hold a strike vote after failing to agree on a contract after two years of talks with management.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents pilots who flew for what were United and Continental Airlines before the two merged in 2010, did not set a date for a vote.
There is no guarantee a strike vote will go ahead, but the step taken by the ALPA meeting in Washington raises the stakes in negotiations over a contract with management for 12,000 pilots. Those talks have stalled under federal mediation.
“There has been more than ample time to reach agreement on a new contract. While a strike is never the pilots’ preference for the path to reaching agreement, we are more than willing to use every tool at our disposal,” said Jay Pierce, chairman of the ALPA unit representing Continental pilots.
Pilots from both United and Continental have been working without new contracts since they agreed to concessions in the airline industry’s financial traumas last decade, during which United went into bankruptcy, and Continental took stringent cost-cutting measures.
ALPA’s decision came on the anniversary of United’s most recent pilots’ strike, in 1985. Continental pilots also last walked out in the 1980s.
A work stoppage would be far from certain at the airline even if leadership received authorization from members to call a strike.
Federal law makes it difficult for airline unions to strike, and the White House can intervene to stop any walkout, in the interest of keeping U.S. commerce moving.
Still, discord among pilots from both the United and Continental work groups augurs badly for management, for whom much depends on their ability to integrate operations smoothly.
Airlines are wrestling with high fuel prices, stiffer competition, and a struggling economy.
United lost $448 million in the first quarter of 2012, partly as a result of expenses related to integration.
United said in a statement it did not expect the announcement of a strike vote to have an immediate impact on negotiations.
“We continue to make significant progress,” United said.
Mediators would have to declare an impasse and withdraw from the joint negotiations in order for pilots to begin the countdown to a strike. Both unions have requested that action.
US Airways LCC.N did not integrate its pilot unions after merging with America West in 2005. American Airlines has threatened to terminate contracts of pilots and other workers in bankruptcy.
Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) this week reached a tentative deal with its pilots, the only major union at the company.
Editing by Daniel Magnowski