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United pilots appear ready to strike. Outcome will likely set standard for industry, test union's strength

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High stakes -- some very high stakes -- are being played for in the airline industry. In more than a year of negotiations, United Airlines has failed to reach a new contract with its pilots. Now, barring an 11th-hour compromise, United pilots are scheduled to strike -- at one minute past midnight tonight.

A strike at the nation's largest airline would have a major impact on all parties involved, including:

United's passengers. A strike could mean a scramble to find seats on other carriers.

The airline industry. A strike is seen as the key showdown for major airlines eager to cut labor costs. If United succeeds in reducing pay for new pilots, the rest of the industry is expected to follow.

Airline pilots. A fight at United marks a critical juncture for the pilots' organization. After years of union apathy and good relations with management, pilots are locked in a struggle over a contract that could affect pilot pay for years to come.

``In the past . . . the company has really had a high regard for the pilots,'' says John LeRoy, a United captain and spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

But no longer, he adds, glancing periodically out an office window, as huge jets land at nearby O'Hare International Airport. The pilots ``now recognize that they are a labor union and they have to act like that.''

The key area of disagreement in the negotiations is United's so-called two-tier wage proposal. Under this plan, the company would pay newly hired pilots significantly less than current pilots. Once the new hires reached the level of captain, a process that could take 20 years, they would be paid at a higher scale. ``Our primary objective is to get a contract, a cost-competitive contract, without a strike,'' says United spokesman Chuck Novak.

The pilots disagree with the plan. New hires should catch up to the higher pay scale much faster, perhaps after five years, Captain LeRoy says. ``The cockpit is a workplace that requires mutual trust and cooperation.'' This would be hard to achieve if some workers are being discriminated against, he says.

If United pilots strike at midnight, it is unclear how many flights United could continue operating. The company says it has a pool of replacement pilots, perhaps 1,000 of them, as well as $600 million in cash and a $1.5 billion credit line to keep operating.

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