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United Strike Looms, But in the Distance

United’s pilots voted to authorize a strike, if necessary. But this week’s strike vote by United’s pilots is more a negotiating ploy than an actual strike threat—for now.

Such strike votes are a common means of putting additional pressure on an ongoing bargaining process, and just about everyone in the industry thinks that’s what’s happening here. Pilots would have to overcome three barriers before they could actually shut down the airline:

  • A declaration by the National Mediation Board that the ongoing negotiations have become deadlocked.
  • A mandatory 30-day cooling-off period.
  • Likely action by the president or congress to halt any strike under the provisions of the Railway Labor Act, which requires mediation and even arbitration in the event of an airline or railway labor dispute that threatens the national security or economy.

The strike vote is still significant, however. The very high percentage of pro-strike votes—reported as 99 percent—indicates that the pilots are serious and unified about pursuing their claims. And pre-strike slowdowns and “work to rules” campaigns can disrupt an airline even in the absence of an actual strike.

The possibility, however remote, of a complete strike at the new United is one of the reasons that many consumer advocates opposed mega-mergers among airlines. The fewer the major airlines, the greater the economic damage when one company stops operating. But, unfortunately, we’re not going to un-ring the merger bell.

At this point, you needn’t book away from United, especially if United gives you the best fare/schedule combination. You’ll have plenty of warning if a real strike seems likely. Still, however, if everything else is equal, booking with another carrier is probably worth considering.

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