Sloane to help United pilots take case to media and DC

NEW YORK: The United Airlines pilots' union retained New York-based Sloane & Company during intense contract negotiations with the management of the beleaguered carrier. The union, which represents the airline's 9,200 pilots, publicly proffered a new contract concession as PRWeek went to press.

NEW YORK: The United Airlines pilots' union retained New York-based Sloane & Company during intense contract negotiations with the management of the beleaguered carrier. The union, which represents the airline's 9,200 pilots, publicly proffered a new contract concession as PRWeek went to press.

United's parent company, UAL, kicked off the bargaining sessions in late August when management announced that the airline's ability to avert bankruptcy rested on employees' willingness to take substantial pay cuts totaling $1.5 billion annually over six years. The employees found themselves in an especially vulnerable bargaining position because 55% of UAL's shares are owned by United union members, including a 28% stake by the pilots.

If management filed for bankruptcy protection, those shares would be worthless.

The union says that the shares have come to comprise a significant chunk of some pilots' retirement nest eggs.

As the bargaining process wore on, the pilots' union said it realized that the media attention necessitated some outside PR counsel to help dispel perceptions that the union was threatening the viability of United.

"We were at a point where we needed some real media relations expertise," said Steve Derbey, communications chairman for the United pilots and a full-time pilot based in Chicago. "We were getting a lot of negative press, and couldn't figure out how to turn it around. We knew we needed help with that effort."

The union said negotiations were also complicated by additional pressure from DC, where regulators are mulling further financial assistance for struggling airlines like United, but have been hinting that serious wage concessions must be part of an aid package. The union said that hiring Sloane was also an important part of communicating its story to Washington.

"The forces in Washington have the power to dangle the carrot of this aid before us in order to get massive concessions," said Derbey. "So we needed to get our message out to the ATSB and to Congress, and we knew that was way beyond our level of expertise."

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