American Airlines returns to the negotiating table with its flight attendants on Wednesday as the union prepares to announce the results of a strike vote.
The vote by 18,000 flight attendants is widely expected to overwhelmingly pass.
It would give union leaders the power to authorize a strike, but such action could not take place unless federal mediators declare an impasse in negotiations, and at this point there is no indication they will.
If an impasse is declared, a strike could not occur until after a 30-day "cooling-off" period.
Talks between the Fort Worth-based company and the union are set to start Wednesday morning before a new federal mediator in Washington. Both sides met with the mediator one-on-one on Tuesday.
The last time both sides got together in March, negotiations broke off with heated rhetoric on both sides.
Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, accused company officials of walking out of the negotiations.
"This conduct is just another example of the company's bad-faith bargaining that has been in full bloom for the past 23 months," she said. "We have exhausted all of our options."
The company denied leaving prematurely.
"The notion that we walked out is categorically untrue," said American Airlines spokeswoman Missy Latham. "We look forward to continuing to bargain."
The union then asked to be released from the negotiations, which could have started the cooling-off period and ultimately led to a strike, but the Federal Mediation Board denied the request and scheduled more talks for this week.
Flight attendants are seeking to re-coup the 33 percent pay cuts they accepted in 2003 when the airline was on the verge of bankruptcy. Claiming their sacrifices save the airline $1 million per day, the union accuses the company of dragging out negotiations.
American Airlines argues its flight attendants are among the best paid in the industry and that any pay raise must also come with increased productivity or health care changes. The company denies it is stonewalling, saying such complex negotiations can take a long time.
The showdown may be the first big test of how the Obama administration handles a testy labor issue. Two of the three members of the National Mediation Board – both appointed by President Obama -- come from union backgrounds.
The same board also is presiding over a wide range of talks between other airlines and assorted unions.
NBC DFW's Scott Gordon is reporting from Washington, D.C.
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