United Airlines is facing tough labour negotiations with six unions whose members believe they should be rewarded for concessions agreed to during the carrier's three-year stay in Chapter 11 earlier this decade.

The carrier is in the early stages of contract talks with labour groups representing roughly 80% of its employees. Two unions have publicly declared their desire to reverse some of the concessions agreed to during the carrier's restructuring.

Over 17,000 staff are represented by the International Association of Machinists , which says it must close a "canyon of distrust" in negotiations with management, claiming United abused bankruptcy laws "to extract $4.6 billion from our members".

IAM is now seeking to broaden its reach at United and regain representation of the carrier's 8,000 mechanics, after it was approached by a group of those employees interested in securing a defined pension benefit plan. IAM represented the airline's mechanics until 2003, when representation shifted to the Aircraft Fraternal Mechanics Association. In 2008 the International Brotherhood of Teamsters completed a successful campaign to represent the carrier's mechanics.

United chief executive Glenn Tilton recently highlighted the "respectful tenor" of the negotiations, but acknowledges "there is much work ahead". Meanwhile, United's branch of the Association of Flight Attendantssays it expects its 13,300 employees at the carrier to "lead the industry in hourly rates of pay".

United's relationship with pilots became somewhat strained last year after management successfully sued the Air Line Pilots Association for instituting a sickout campaign, which led to first officer sick leave rates on certain fleets rising by 103%.

Despite the challenges Unitedfaces in contract negotiations,senior vice-president for labour relations Doug McKeen emphasises it aims for open, honest and fair negotiations to achieve cost-effective agreements that benefit employees and "make economic sense for the enterprise".

Another North American carrier, Air Canada, is also facing contract expirations with the majority of its unionised workforce eager to seek gains from C$1 billion ($851 mllion) in concessions negotiated during its 2003-04 restructuring.

The Canadian Auto Workers union representing nearly 5,000 of the carrier's staff is urging the government to take a stake in Air Canada, stressing the carrier has lost roughly C$6 billion since its 1989 privatisation. Furthermore, CAW says it has no plans to grant Air Canada relief on pension contributions. Without government reform, Air Canada faces significant funding requirements to its pension plans this year.

Air Canada management has proposed a moratorium on funding pension deficits to aid in establishing "financial certainty over the next several years". But CAW appears to have little patience for that request, saying the government should require Air Canada to fully fund pension obligations, and establish a federal pension funding guarantee. "Our pensions will not be held hostage," warns CAW.

Source: Airline Business