Judge lifts order on United’s mechanics

Associated Press

CHICAGO — A federal judge on Thursday lifted a back-to-work order imposed against United Airlines mechanics, who the airline accuses of staging a work slowdown during the holiday season as a way to pressure the company during contract negotiations.

In lifting the temporary restraining order issued last month, U.S. District Judge William Hibbler warned the mechanics’ union not to interpret his action as supportive of the alleged slowdown, which the airline has blamed for hundreds of flight cancellations and delays.

The company had hoped the temporary restraining order would remain in place until next Wednesday, when the court will hear arguments on whether to impose a permanent injunction against the International Association of Machinists.

The judge’s ruling came as United and the Machinists resumed stalled contract talks for the first time since they broke off a month ago.

United said it had canceled more than 100 flights by midafternoon Thursday — 73 because of bad weather and 31 due to maintenance problems — down from the December average of 58.

Hibbler said he was lifting the order over the objections of United attorneys in part because he didn’t want court action to have any impact on the negotiations in Washington. He also said that the temporary restraining order he issued Nov. 17 hadn’t been particularly effective.

Machinists attorney Robert Bush said he didn’t think any slowdown was under way, and that the union had done all it could to prevent one.

"The company knew this," he said. He said United negotiators even opened the resumed talks by "thanking the IAM for keeping the lid on."

The company is asserting that mechanics have taken planes out of service for repairs when no repairs were necessary and thus caused cancellations and delays. United attorney Robert Siegel acknowledged Thursday that the problem has not been as severe as it was at its peak just before Thanksgiving.

Hibbler suggested there was no point in continuing with an order that was not working. He said if lifting the order caused a spike in planes taken out of service for repairs between now and Wednesday, it could serve as a gauge for the court to decide what further action might be needed.

Hibbler’s decision seemed to catch both sides by surprise.

After both attorneys offered their initial arguments, he refused to lift the restraining order on grounds that it had been issued without giving the union adequate time to respond to the companies complaint.

But Hibbler then said he would lift the order because it hadn’t been doing that much good, and to avoid influencing the contract negotiations.

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