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‘Cooling-off’ order thwarts United mechanics strike

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WASHINGTON — A 30-day "cooling-off" order was issued Sunday to prevent a strike by disgruntled United Airlines mechanics.

In a brief statement issued by the White House, President Bush said he "remains concerned about the effect an airline strike could have on the traveling public and on the economy."

He urged the two sides to continue to work at resolving their ongoing dispute.

A Presidential Emergency Board appointed in the labor dispute between United and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers sent a fact-finding report to the White House on Sunday.

With the issuance of the report, the cooling-off period takes effect under provisions of the National Railway Labor Act.

United, which tends to carry a high proportion of business and overseas travelers, was hard hit by the travel slowdown after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and has been losing some $15 million a day, the report said.

The board report said that while United makes a compelling case for its employees to share in the concessions needed to enable the airline to survive, United's argument falls short of supporting the position that the mechanics should receive no immediate pay increase.

"The IAM-represented mechanics . . . have shown since at least 1994 their willingness to support the carrier where it counts, in their paychecks," the report stated.

The report said that if United is to survive wage concessions will likely be necessary from the airline's employees, but they must be spread evenly across the board.

"The difficulty with the company's initial bargaining position, however, is that it places the brunt of this formidable task on the shoulders of the machinists . . . ," the report said.

Before concessions can be addressed, the report said, the base lines or starting point of all employee groups should be similar.

Earlier this month, a federal judge refused to block a presidential order that would prevent a walkout by United's 15,000 mechanics.

Bush intervened in December at the request of federal mediators to prohibit a strike and created the emergency board to help break a two-year contract stalemate.

A spokesman for the union said Sunday's development was another step in a lengthy process and not unexpected. He said the union had not seen the report.

"We have been negotiating almost around the clock since last Tuesday. There had been some expectation of a settlement before the report was issued but differences remain and there was no deal," said the spokesman, Frank Larkin.

United Airlines did not return calls for comment.