(Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), the Pentagon’s biggest supplier, and a union representing over 3,600 workers, on Monday said they would meet starting Wednesday with federal mediators to try to settle a strike that began just over eight weeks ago.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) said the two sides would meet in Fort Worth, Texas starting on Wednesday for mediated bargaining sessions with officials from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent federal agency that handles over 5,000 mediations a year, said it initiated the move after being in touch with both sides.
Spokesman John Arnold said it was difficult to predict how long the mediation process would take, noting that each case was unique and posed its own unique challenges.
The union welcomed the move, which came as the strike entered a ninth week, and said it looked forward to face-to-face meetings with the company.
“While there remains no shortage of resolve on both sides of this dispute, we`re hopeful the FMCS can provide the independent perspective that often produces the framework for a resolution,” said Mark Blondin, general vice president of the IAM Aerospace.
Lockheed confirmed that it had accepted the mediation offer, but had no further immediate comment.
“It’s been a long eight weeks plus,” said Paul Black, president of the local machinists union in Fort Worth, noting that the union and management remained at odds over pensions and health care benefits, but other smaller issues also needed to be resolved.
He said the involvement of the federal mediation service was helpful because neither side wanted to be “the first to blink.”
To keep production running, Lockheed has hired over 300 temporary workers and borrowed 50 workers from other facilities since the machinists went out on strike on April 23 at the Fort Worth plant, where Lockheed builds the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and two military bases in California and Maryland.
It is also using more than 1,100 salaried workers to keep F-35 production moving ahead. In addition, more than 510 union members have crossed picket lines to return to work.
Lockheed remains locked in difficult negotiations with the Pentagon to finalize a contract for a fifth batch of 32 F-35 fighters, with U.S. defense officials demanding “substantial” cuts in Lockheed’s labor and pension costs, according to a source familiar with the issue.
Company officials say they believe the company’s best and final offer was generous.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa in Washington and A. Anathalakshmi in Bangalore; editing by Carol Bishopric