(Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), the Pentagon’s biggest supplier, and a union representing more than 3,600 workers, said on Monday they had agreed to meet federal mediators to try to settle a strike that began more than eight weeks ago.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) said the two sides would meet in Fort Worth, Texas, from Wednesday for mediated bargaining sessions with officials from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
Lockheed, under pressure from the Pentagon to reduce its labor and pension costs, has been hiring temporary workers to maintain production at the plant where it builds F-16 and F-35 fighters.
The union is on strike largely over pension benefits.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), an independent federal agency that handles more than 5,000 mediations a year, said it initiated the move after being in touch with both sides.
Spokesman John Arnold said it was difficult to predict how long the mediation process would take, noting that each case was unique and posed its own challenges.
The union welcomed the move, which came as the strike entered a ninth week, and said it looked forward to face-to-face meetings with the company.
“While there remains no shortage of resolve on both sides of this dispute, we’re hopeful the FMCS can provide the independent perspective that often produces the framework for a resolution,” said Mark Blondin, general vice president of the IAM Aerospace.
Lockheed confirmed that it had accepted the mediation offer, saying it welcomed the opportunity to find a resolution to the strike.
“It’s been a long eight weeks plus,” said Paul Black, president of the machinists union in Fort Worth, which voted on April 23 to go out on strike at the Texas plant and two military bases in California and Maryland.
Black said the union and management remained at odds over pensions and health care benefits, but other smaller issues also needed to be resolved.
He said the involvement of the federal mediation service was helpful because neither side wanted to be “the first to blink.”
Lockheed has hired about 380 temporary workers and borrowed 50 workers from other company facilities to keep production running at the Fort Worth plant. It is also using more than 1,100 salaried workers to keep F-35 production moving ahead.
In addition, more than 550 union members have crossed picket lines to return to work as of Monday, 40 more than last week.
Lockheed remains locked in difficult negotiations with the Pentagon to finalize a contract for a fifth batch of 32 F-35 fighters, with U.S. defense officials demanding “substantial” cuts in Lockheed’s labor and pension costs, according to a source familiar with the issue.
The National Labor Relations Board last week dismissed three unfair labor practice charges filed by the union against Lockheed. The company welcomed the decision, saying its negotiators had bargained in good faith with the union.
“The offer to the IAM was fair and competitive. The company values the IAM employees and wants them back at work building the best fighter aircraft in the world as soon as possible,” said company spokesman Joe Stout.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa in Washington and A. Anathalakshmi in Bangalore; Editing by Carol Bishopric and Robert Birsel