ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (AP) - U.S. Airways Group, which has asked a bankruptcy judge to void its labor contracts, will seek a court injunction prohibiting strikes by disaffected unions.
The decision to seek an injunction comes as the airline reached a tentative agreement late Thursday afternoon on a new contract with one of the two unions that have been threatening a strike.
The Communications Workers of America, which represents about 6,000 reservations and gate agents at the airline, said the new deal was able to offset some of the most severe demands the airline had made on issues of pay and outsourcing.
"It's a difficult situation. ... We were up against a petition to throw out our contract in its entirety,'' said CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson.
"This offsets some of the worst of US Airways' proposal in the areas of pay and contracting out.''
Johnson would not discuss details of the contract, but previous proposals from the airline had called for pay cuts of as much as 34 percent.
In a court filing, the union had indicated that the airline's proposal would create a pay scale lower than what was in place in 1989, when the top wage was $17.32 an hour.
Johnson said the union hoped to hold a ratification vote as quickly as possible.
Jerrold A. Glass, the airline's senior vice president of employee relations, said the CWA agreement "gives US Airways positive momentum toward a successful implementation of its transformation plan.''
A bankruptcy court hearing began Thursday on the airline's request to cancel its collective bargaining agreements with its machinists, flight attendants, reservation agents and gate workers.
The airline is seeking to impose pay cuts of 25 percent or more on some worker groups, and also wants to cut benefits for current employees and retirees to save an estimated $1 billion a year.
It also wants to terminate its remaining pension plans, which provide benefits to the flight attendants and machinists.
If the airline does not get the relief it is seeking, it will be forced to begin liquidation proceedings in mid-January, said Brian Leitch, the airline's lawyer.
"It's likely, almost to the point of certainty, that sometime in the middle of January the airline will have to begin the orderly process of liquidation'' unless the unions reach a negotiated agreement or the judge imposes new contract terms, Leitch told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Mitchell.
The CWA and the Association of Flight Attendants have threatened to strike if their contracts are canceled.
Airline management has insisted the unions do not have the right to strike under federal labor law, and airline vice president Chris Chiames said Thursday in an interview that the airline would seek a declaratory injunction from Mitchell to clarify the issue and prevent the unions from striking if he cancels their labor contracts.
Chiames said the airline would file the motion as soon as this weekend and seek a hearing on the issue Dec. 16.
The airline has been frustrated that talk of a strike will persuade travelers to book away from US Air even though management is convinced a strike would not be permissible.
"The Debtors (US Airways) marvel at the self-destructive impulse that leads to the public expression of such a threat,'' Leitch wrote in a court motion Tuesday that first outlined the airline's plan to seek an injunction.
"If a strike were to occur, the Debtors would almost certainly be doomed from the first moment of a walkout.''
But some union leaders have said a strike threat provides the unions their only real negotiating power in a process in which management is seeking severe cuts and the bankruptcy judge can impose the cuts unilaterally.
Mitchell has already imposed temporary pay cuts of 21 percent on the unions.
Teddy Xidas, president-elect of the US Airways unit of the flight attendants' union, said the threat of a strike is "real and ... in my own opinion it has helped negotiations.''
While management says the federal Railway Labor Act requires intervention of a federal mediator and a cooling-off period, the unions say those provisions do not apply if a collective bargaining agreement is dissolved.
"Any attempt by US Airways to enjoin a strike ... would be doomed to fail,'' CWA lawyer Daniel Katz wrote in a court filing, arguing that the airline cannot walk away from the Railway Labor Act by seeking to abrogate the contracts while at the same time seeking the law's protection to stop an employee strike.
The issue is essentially untested because a judge has never before dissolved collective bargaining agreements in an airline bankruptcy.
Mitchell said he hopes to conclude the hearing on the labor contracts by Dec. 17, but indicated it could possibly stretch into the first week of January.
US Airways Group Inc., based in Arlington, Virginia, employs about 34,000 workers, including about 28,000 in its mainline US Airways operations.
The airline has already reached new labor deals with its pilots and its smaller Transport Workers Union, and it is continuing negotiations with its other unions even as the hearing to cancel those contracts is ongoing.
US Airways will likely continue pursuit of judicial relief from the CWA contract until it is formally ratified by the union's rank and file. - AP