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White House ready to delay strike at United

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House threatened Friday to stop a possible walkout by United Airlines mechanics, who have authorized a strike as early as next week.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters President Bush is prepared to create a mediation board, a move which would delay a strike for up to 60 days. The White House believes a board could help both sides agree to a new labor contract.

For the first 30 days, the board would investigate and then make recommendations. Both sides would have the following 30 days to consider the recommendations. Neither side would be bound to accept them.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers voted overwhelmingly Thursday to strike if no deal is reached when the current 30-day cooling-off period ends December 21 at 12:01 a.m.

The 15,000-member union voted 99 percent in favor of a strike after United's negotiators withdrew contract proposals and abandoned the bargaining table, union officials said.

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The National Mediation Board declared an impasse November 21.

If Bush appoints a Presidential Emergency Board, the December 21 deadline for strike or settlement would be extended an additional 60 days -- until mid-February.

"The president has made it clear that, given the fragility of the airline industry and the importance to the American people of ensuring their right to travel, he would look very unkindly on any action that would interfere with those rights," Fleischer said.

"The president is prepared, when required and necessary, to name a mediation board. We'll inform you when that happens," he said.

United, the nation's second-largest airline, laid off 20,000 people and cut hundreds of flights in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

A United spokeswoman said the airline is confident that the president will appoint a board and prevent a strike.

"We don't expect any disruption to customers over the holidays as result of this vote," said spokeswoman Susana Leyva. "Customers should continue to book on United with full confidence."

The likelihood of an agreement within the next week appears small.

"No talks are scheduled now," said Frank Larkin, a spokesman for the mechanics union. "United has withdrawn all its proposals. Unfortunately, this week will not likely be a point where an agreement is reached."

The mechanics' last contract expired in July 2000. They last received a raise in 1994, Larkin said.

Disagreements center on job security, pension and wages, he said. A top mechanic makes about $23 an hour.


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