CHICAGO – United Airlines (UAL) mechanics and maintenance workers around the country were poised to walk off the job Feb. 12. Here in Chicago many had already cleaned out their lockers.

Capping a two-year, sometimes bitter dispute, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 141-M reached a last-minute tentative agreement with UAL Feb. 12. A ratification vote is scheduled for March 5. To allow for the vote, the IAM extended their strike deadline until March 7. While the District 141-M negotiating committee is recommending the contract, the full membership must ratify it.

Negotiations for a new contract had begun in December 1999. United’s IAM mechanics were ready to strike last December when President Bush used emergency powers to stop the strike and establish a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB). The PEB then tried to impose a contract on the workers.

Last week the last of the PEB proposals was overwhelmingly rejected by the union membership. The PEB’s last proposal ended a 60-day “cooling off” period invoked by presidential decree. This set the stage for the first real collective bargaining sessions that included the union’s right to strike.

Robert Roach Jr., a vice president of the IAM, hailed the agreement as a victory for collective bargaining without government interference. He said that it was the strike deadline that forced the company into serious negotiations.

The new contract would cover roughly 13,000 workers. The tentative agreement includes a 37-percent wage increase, improvements in the pension plan and increased retroactive pay to cover the time without a new contract.

In 1994 the union made big concessions to United in exchange for stocks. Many of the workers were bitter that up until this new agreement they had only recovered their 1994 wage levels. This left them behind other workers in the industry.

One of the main areas of contention in the emergency board’s last proposal was a new concession plan that was to be imposed on the union after a new contract was signed. United’s new CEO, John Creighton, wanted a blank check from the IAM to impose concessions and cutbacks as part of a “recovery plan.”

The new agreement affirms the union membership’s right to vote on any future changes in the contract, as well as any “recovery plans.” Many IAM members are still angry about the president’s airline bail-out plan that provided billions for the airline companies and nothing for the thousands of airline workers still laid-off as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Provided the membership ratifies the new agreement, United still has to come to terms with 23,000 other employees who work the ramps, costumer services and other non-maintenance jobs at the airports. These workers, also members of the IAM, have been in the same contract limbo. But the substantial wage increases and the backing off of imposed concessions won by the mechanics can help set the stage for similar victories for these other United workers.