* 1,400 mechanics back union leadership in contract talks
* UPS says negotiations continue
* Union has warned holiday season disruptions could occur
* UPS shares down slightly; FedEx shares up 0.8 pct
(Adds additional comment from Teamsters official, comment from
UPS, background and byline; updates stock)
By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO, Sept 15 The 1,400 U.S. mechanics who
maintain United Parcel Service Inc's (UPS.N) worldwide fleet of
263 aircraft have authorized a strike, union officials said on
Tuesday, but contract talks will continue later this month.
The vote represents a ratcheting up of the pressure in
negotiations between the two sides just as UPS, the world's
largest shipping company, enters its busiest season.
Bob Combine, president of Teamsters Local 2727, told
Reuters that 90 percent of the workers who cast ballots gave
the union the authorization to call a strike if the talks break
"I hope this sends a clear message to the company that the
membership is behind us," Combine said.
Mike Mangeot, a spokesman for the air unit of Atlanta-based
UPS, described the vote as "an internal gesture to show
solidarity" and said it has "no legal substance" in the
contract talks, which began in October 2006 and continue under
the supervision of the National Mediation Board (NMB).
UPS said more talks are scheduled for late September, a
sign the process is far from deadlocked.
Until the talks officially break down and the union endures
at least one cooling-off period, a strike -- even one
authorized by members -- would be illegal under the
Depression-era legislation that governs the UPS unit.
"We continue to believe that the NMB-supervised
negotiations process will result in a labor agreement ...,"
THREATS OF 1997
Local 2727, frustrated by what it claims is an impasse on
central issues and emboldened by what it considers a pro-labor
stance by the Obama administration, insists the vote is deadly
serious and could affect deliveries during UPS's crunch
The union's members service the planes that handle about 16
percent of UPS's average daily volume of 15.5 million
"We're not posturing," Combine said. "History shows this
company can badly misjudge the seriousness of its workers."
The reference is to 1997, when a two-week walkout by
ground-side workers cost UPS $850 million and sent customers to
rivals. Some customers never returned.
Mangeot dismisses the comparison. "That was an different
employee group, different issues were at play and different
labor laws applied," he said.
The central issues in the current contract talks center on
what the union characterizes as UPS's efforts to outsource some
maintenance work and reduce workers' benefits. UPS declines to
comment on the specifics of the talks except to say that
"benefits are under discussion as part of a broader economic
Unlike UPS's roughly 260,000 unionized ground workers, who
are covered by regular U.S. labor law, its 2,900 pilots and
1,400 aircraft mechanics are covered by the Railway Labor Act,
Depression-era legislation designed to protect the nation's
transportation network and commerce by discouraging strikes.
But strikes can happen under the RLA. Once a federal
mediator determines that talks have reached an impasse -- a
determination that can come after a request from either side --
walkouts are legal following a 30-day cooling-off period.
The cooling-off period can be extended an additional 60
days, but only if the U.S. president believes the dispute
"threatens substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a
degree such as to deprive any section of the country essential
So far, neither side has asked the mediator to be released
from the talks.
Like its main rival, Memphis-based FedEx Corp (FDX.N), UPS
is considered a bellwether of U.S. economic activity.
UPS shares were down 7 cents to $59.12 in midday trade on
the New York Stock Exchange, while FedEx shares rose 64 cents
(Reporting by James B. Kelleher and Nick Carey, Editing by