Continental’s Attendants, Mechanics Call Off Strike

Times Labor Writer

After picketing for more than a year and a half, striking Continental Airlines’ flight attendants and machinists announced Wednesday that they are ending their walkout and will try to get their old jobs back.

“We made this decision in the best interest of our members,” said Alex Bay, a representative of the International Assn. of Machinists, which represents Continental’s mechanics. “It was time for us to evaluate our strategy. The strike wasn’t getting the job done.”

Indeed, one source close to the machinists union called the decision “a strategic retreat.” Both the machinists and the Union of Flight Attendants suffered substantial defections in their ranks as the strike wore on and Continental continued to fly. About half of the 2,100 mechanics have already returned to work, said machinists’ representative Wilbur Spurlock. About 50% to 60% of the 2,600 flight attendants have already gone back, said Claudia Lampe, chairwoman for that union.


Lampe said the decision to end the strike had been a difficult one for her organization, which represents only flight attendants at Continental. But she said union leaders decided the action was their best hope of ultimately getting a contract from the airline, which declared bankruptcy in the fall of 1983 in order to annul its labor contracts.

Continental took that action shortly after the mechanics struck in August, 1983. After it filed for bankruptcy, the company halted its domestic operations for three days, then announced it was resuming operations with new working conditions and pay scales that slashed wages by about 50%. The flight attendants and the pilots then joined the strike.

On Wednesday, Continental’s pilots said they would continue their walkout “until we can achieve an equitable agreement with the company.”

The pilots’ union, which has been paying its strikers $2,400 a month in strike benefits, said it has suffered fewer defections than the other unions. The machinists paid strike benefits of only $40 a week until January, when that figure was raised to $70 a week. The flight attendants received no strike benefits.

Both unions said their members were making an unconditional offer to return to work and asked the airline to open negotiations in a few days on the issue. Continental responded that it was agreeable to discussion on the issue and others.

However, in acknowledging the flight attendants’ decision to end the strike, the airline also stressed “that there will be no displacement of current employees under any circumstances as a result of the union’s action.”


‘Doesn’t Need Them All’

“The difficult thing will be how to integrate the returning strikers with the people who have been working,” said Louis Marckesano, an airline analyst with the brokerage house of Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia. “The company doesn’t need them all” at this time.

Both the flight attendants and the mechanics acknowledged Wednesday that they would have to make concessions on wages in any future negotiations with the company.

“We’re not looking for the good old days to return,” Lampe said. “We know better than that.”

However, she said her union wanted to have a voice on working conditions and other job-related issues. Since the labor contracts were annulled, employees have been working under rules unilaterally imposed by Continental.

A Continental spokesman said the new work rules had enabled the company to better utilize its personnel.

Concern for Image Cited

Jay Roth, a Los Angeles attorney who represents both the flight attendants and the machinists, said a key factor in the unions’ decision to end the strike was their desire to be seen in a positive light during federal bankruptcy proceedings to reorganize Continental.


Bay of the machinists’ union said: “We feel that while on strike, the unions have been perceived as having an intention of destroying the company. That has never been our goal. That has never been our intent.

“We hope that by discontinuing the strike, we can get rid of that perception.”

Roth added: “The clear message the unions want to give everyone is that they want to get a fair and just resolution for all their members. The two unions have hundreds of millions of dollars of claims pending against Continental in the bankruptcy court.”

Lawsuits Pending

Roth noted that the two unions also have lawsuits pending against Continental, alleging that the company failed to bargain in good faith in the 1983 negotiations and since then.

“Calling off the strike doesn’t mean calling off the litigation or the claims,” he said.

Continental filed a preliminary reorganization plan earlier this year that projects a near quintupling in operating profit through 1989 but also projects a very substantial year-by-year increase in its long-term debt, according to sources close to the bankruptcy case. In February, Continental reported a 1984 profit of $50.3 million, compared to a loss of $218.4 million in 1983.

Creditors immediately attacked the reorganization plan as unfairly benefiting the company’s shareholders, including Texas Air Corp., which owns 63% of Continental’s stock. Under the preliminary proposal, Continental would take up to 13 years to pay its pre-Chapter 11 debts, while expanding substantially and sharply increasing shareholders’ equity.