The union representing ground workers at American Airlines wants to take a big step toward a strike against the nation's second-largest airline.
The Transport Workers Union said Wednesday it will ask federal mediators to let the employees walk away from contract talks if there is no deal by March 8.
If federal mediators agree, it could start the countdown toward a strike this spring. The president or Congress can block strikes, which have become very rare in the airline industry.
American Airlines had no immediate comment on the union's plans.
The union represents 28,000 workers at American Airlines and American Eagle, including mechanics and bag handlers. The union has been negotiating over new contracts since 2006 and using federal mediators since 2008.
"Four years is time enough to settle a contract," said James C. Little, the union's international president.
Little said that in 2003, when American was on the brink of bankruptcy, the union negotiated and approved a contract with wage cuts in just two weeks.
The union's members fall into nine different bargaining units, and some of the smaller ones have reached tentative agreements. But the airline and larger groups, such as mechanics, are still far apart on wages and other items.
Union leaders are not satisfied with a company proposal for a 1.5 percent pay raise in the last year of the new contract and with signing bonuses and lump-sum payments instead of raises in other years. They also oppose changes in pensions and retiree health benefits.
American's parent, AMR Corp., has lost $3.6 billion in the last two years due to rising fuel prices, a slump in travel because of the recession and tough competition from low-cost carriers. American officials have spoken often about needing to control labor costs.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline also is in drawn-out negotiations with pilots and flight attendants. The president of the flight attendants union has said that, like the ground workers, she will request a release from mediation if there is no deal by early March.
Bargaining in the airline industry is governed by the Railway Labor Act, which bars strikes and lockouts unless the National Mediation Board decides that the talks are hopelessly deadlocked. In that case, the mediation board offers binding arbitration, and if that's rejected by either side, a 30-day "cooling-off" period begins before workers can strike or be locked out.
The strained labor-management relations at American could test President Barack Obama's administration. The American groups would be the largest in the airline industry to move close to striking.
Although Democrats are often viewed as more sympathetic to labor, the last Democratic president before Obama, Bill Clinton, ordered American's pilots back to work minutes after they struck in 1997.
Last fall, pilots at Hawaiian Airlines asked to be released from mediation, but federal mediators didn't approve the request. Instead, talks continued and led to a successful deal that the union said included pay raises of 15 percent to 22 percent over nearly six years.
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