Video Technology Rallies Striking United Pilots : Slick Teleconferencing, Use of Cassettes Build Support for Week-Old Walkout

Times Staff Writer

Has the labor movement joined the ranks of the video generation?

Is the era of the electronic union hall and the living room strike upon us?

In what may be precedent-setting strategy, the Air Line Pilots Assn. (ALPA) is taking on United Airlines by using video technology--from live-by-satellite teleconferences to massive, overnight deliveries of videocassettes--in efforts to rally United pilots behind their week-old strike.

Just Like Evening News

In fact, the union's two teleconferences to date were so slickly produced that parts of them might have been mistaken for a network telecast of the evening news.

Consider some of the familiar TV faces whose appearances were transmitted by satellite to pilots at eight locations throughout the United States (and recorded on videocassettes for those who couldn't be present at the teleconferences):

--Former CBS and CNN newsman Daniel Schorr cracking jokes about his unemployment and reading a canned speech that the pilots' union had prepared for him (and ad-libbing that these were the union leaders' positions, not necessarily his own).

--Former ABC commentator Howard K. Smith quoting Al Capone ("You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word") and discussing the responsibilities of both management and labor in increasing productivity.

--Attorney F. Lee Bailey declaring that "this is not a simple labor disagreement--this is war" and offering his concerns as a private pilot, a frequent airline passenger and the fiance of a United Airlines flight attendant.

--Actor and union leader Ed Asner cautioning that "a hostile labor environment is detrimental to all of us" and volunteering "my prayers and the prayers of my fellow unionists."

--PBS' Paul Anthony, the announcer on "Washington Week in Review," serving as the master of ceremonies for both teleconferences and telling the pilots that some of the labyrinthine, high-tech snake dances that linked various parties to the teleconferences were "kind of like the story of your negotiations for the last 15 months." Anthony introduced the first teleconference 12 days before the strike began as: "The greatest display of solidarity the airline industry has ever seen."

According to Dave Koch, a pilot and executive producer of the Chicago-based teleconferences, the broadcast journalists were chosen to participate in the program because "we wanted some people who had reputations of being neutral and good reputations as competent journalists . . . they're represented through a speaking agency so they're available . . . they carefully reviewed what we asked them to do before they consented."

Both the first teleconference and the second, held on the night the strike began, also included a union version of a rock video. Images of United employees were set to the strikers' theme song, "We Are Family . . . A United Family," a take-off on the Sister Sledge hit, "We Are Family."

And then there was the presence of a 12x20-foot video screen magnifying each speaker's face to gigantic proportions, a feature that made the events look not unlike the Jacksons' Victory Tour.

Oh, yes, and also present in each of the 3 1/2-hour teleconferences were the more predictable elements of union business: comments from assorted pilots and flight attendants, union leaders, pilots' wives and other supporters.

Other Side Absent

The only thing that was missing from the two teleconferences were representatives from the other side. As Capt. Roger Hall, a pilot and strike leader, told both the live and video audiences at the first event, Richard Ferris (United's chairman of the board) offered to appear at the teleconference, but the union declined to accept his offer.

"I'm not aware of any negotiations that have been settled through the process of debate," Hall explained.

At the second teleconference on the evening the strike was called, F. Lee Bailey informed the audience that he had attempted to talk to Ferris "a few hours ago. He was too busy." Bailey also said that Ted Koppel had invited both himself and Ferris to appear on "Nightline" the following evening but that Ferris "indicated that he's too busy for that, too."

"We are not interested in debating Mr. F. Lee Bailey. He is not a member of ALPA," said United spokesman Charles Novak, who went on to say that Ferris, too, has been communicating his message to pilots through video technology as well as other means. Videotapes of Ferris and others explaining the company's position were sent to every pilot's home, Novak said.

TV Stations Used Footage

In addition, United contacted 550 television stations throughout the country and apprised them that footage on United's view of the strike would be broadcast by satellite for use at the stations' discretion. "It's been seen around the country," Novak said.

What does the company think of the pilot union's use of technology to rally the troops?

"It's very sophisticated," Novak acknowledged. "They've run a very good public relations program, there's no doubt about that. Some people who went (to the teleconference) thought it was very emotional and that F. Lee Bailey really fired up the program."

At the AFL-CIO in Washington, director of information Murray Seeger saw the pilots' use of video technology as "a highly effective means to keep the solidarity . . . it's one of the most innovative and widest-spread uses of this technology. . . . I think that the proof is in the great solidarity they've shown in these first days of their strike."

Seeger could not think of any other strike in which video teleconferences had been used, but he recalled that a recent convention of steelworkers "satellited their proceedings to local centers around the country."

6,000 Pilots

Seeger pointed out that the United pilots, a relatively tiny union of fewer than 6,000 members residing in 49 states, is the equivalent of "a small, local union in any other industry."

The teleconferences are but one element of what is known as the United Pilots' Family Awareness Program, a wide-ranging operation that uses everything from high-tech video extravaganzas to low-tech letter-writing campaigns and coffee klatches to organize the union members.

For several weeks, United pilots (along with their spouses and more recently flight attendants, machinists, striking pilots from Continental Airlines and anyone who wants to support the United pilots' strike) have been meeting twice a week in the homes of about 600 pilot "group leaders."

They get together to watch videotapes (there have been 15 to date covering such subjects as strike benefits, medical insurance and financial planning) shipped to each group leader by overnight express. And they meet to discuss everything from rumors and facts about the strike to the finer points of psychological warfare.

Meeting Topics

For example, at a meeting earlier this week at the home of Jane and Jack Hartman in El Segundo, topics of conversation included such subjects as:

--The hostile nature of the strike. ("Before when there was a strike, the company was our benevolent friend. You could even call the company and find out about getting unemployment benefits. This time they tell you you're going to lose your job," said flight attendant Jan Erickson.)

--How to deal with phone calls from United. ("Don't talk to them," insisted striking Continental pilot Joel Daniel, "If people talk to them, they'll get a few pilots to cross the picket line.")

--Bailey's penchant for getting involved in airline affairs; the attorney was involved in the early stages of the air traffic controllers' strike a few years ago, and, though he is not the pilot union's counsel, Bailey has announced that he will sue United on behalf of one of its pilot members ("He's the Marvin Mitchelson of aviation," cracked flight attendant Ian McDuffie).

"The Family Awareness Program is effective because, through it, we are informed," emphasized Jane Hartman, wife of United pilot Jack Hartman and co-coordinator with him of the program for the L.A. pilot domicile, a territory that includes Nevada and Arizona.

Rumors Dangerous

"Rumors ruin a strike effort and people panic," she said. "We don't have any hysterical wives in this strike because, with the Family Awareness Program, wives of pilots have information. Besides the cassettes, we have written information from psychologists and nurses. They tell us things like what kind of foods to avoid in this time of stress. And we have lawyers answering legal questions. We have everything. . . ."

"Do you have any idea how traumatic it (the strike) is? We have six kids. My husband's job was very secure. Why shouldn't I be angry at him for striking?" she asked. (Actually, she not only supports her husband's decision to strike, but has been working night and day in support of the strike.)

Both the Hartmans and Walt McNamara, the United pilot who came up with the idea for the Family Awareness Program, insist that the real reason for the program's inception was first to avoid a strike and, second, should that fail, to be prepared for it.

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