NASA contract workers threaten strike

All sides agree that a walkout beginning Sunday would not affect shuttle launch set for Friday.

Stalled labor negotiations at the Kennedy Space Center could lead a group of contract launch workers to walk off the job on Sunday, but representatives of all parties said a strike would have a minimal effect on a launch scheduled at the east Florida site for Friday.

The International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers, which represents 569 launch workers, reached an impasse at the start of June in contract negotiations with United Space Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. that holds a major shuttle contract.

Citing differences over pay, pensions and health insurance, union representative Johnny Walker said the group announced its intention to cancel its bargaining agreement, effective early Sunday morning, following a five-day cooling-off period.

Walker said the launch workers primarily are responsible for loading the shuttle onto the launch pad, with some additional duties related to maintenance and water and electrical systems, and some workers posted in California and overseas to retrieve the shuttle in case it lands far from Cape Canaveral. Many of the jobs require special certifications, he said, such as licenses for operating overhead cranes that move shuttle parts.

Defending union members' dedication to the shuttle's success, Walker said, "For the shuttle that's up to launch Friday, they're done."

He stressed that many of the union members have worked on the shuttle for years under various contractors. "This is our life; it's always been our life. We did this a long time before United Space Alliance came in here," he said. "We believe in the program; we support the program 150,000 percent."

United Space Alliance spokeswoman Tracy Yeats said some workers have additional duties such as sound suppression immediately following the launch, but she said the company has contingency plans in case of a strike.

"We're prepared to maintain critical path shuttle processing using nonunion technicians, engineers and managers . . . that have been identified as possessing the experience and certifications for the tasks that they'll be assigned," Yeats said. She said additional subcontractors would supplement company employees to handle the workload.

Walker said a strike would go on "as long as it takes," but he expressed doubt about the company's ability to bring in qualified replacements. Both sides said they were open to resuming talks.

Both also agreed that the timing of the launch and possible strike is coincidental, with the union deal driven by when the three-year contract was originally signed and the launch pushed to June by an unexpected hailstorm that damaged the shuttle just before a March launch attempt.

NASA spokesman William Johnson downplayed the significance of the strike threat. "This is kind of routine; we've been through these things before," he said, noting than an agency labor representative was monitoring the situation.

Johnson said there is an 80 percent likelihood that the shuttle will take off Friday based on weather predictions, and that Saturday and Sunday conditions are also promising.