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Television Reviews : All Is Strife-Ridden on the Eastern Front

Labor-management strife ain’t what it used to be, as “The Battle for Eastern Airlines,” tonight’s edition of PBS’ “Frontline” (9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15, 10 p.m. on Channel 50), shows clearly, thoroughly and intensely.

The war between Eastern’s owners and employees has gone on for more than 50 years, but in the 1980s that war became incredibly complicated by wage cuts, complex new kinds of union-management agreements, and corporate buyouts.

This “Frontline,” produced by Alex Gibney, is an intelligently structured, if perhaps slightly slanted, review of the airline’s financial and labor problems. It updates Gibney’s documentary “Collision Course,” which was shown on KCET last year. (Last-minute details may be covered in Judy Woodruff’s introduction.)

More than mere corporate history, “The Battle for Eastern Airlines” provides fascinating quick sketches of sharply conflicting personalities: Frank Borman, the hard-nosed ex-astronaut who became Eastern’s highly visible chairman; Frank Lorenzo, whose Texas Air Corp. bought Eastern in early 1986; and Charles Bryan, the machinists union leader who believes that employees should be represented in the company for which they work.

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(In the not-quite-completed tape provided to The Times, the opportunity to include yet another flashy player, Donald Trump, is passed by. We see Trump, who purchased the Eastern Shuttle from Texas Air in October, only briefly--standing behind Lorenzo at the announcement of the deal.)

Bryan’s wish came true during what he calls the “Camelot” period--a couple of years in the mid-'80s when Eastern workers, in return for pay cuts, suddenly owned 25% of Eastern--a compromise destroyed by fare wars and the Texas Air buyout.

That’s just one of several chapters related by Gibney in intriguing style. Some viewers, however, may notice that his heart seems to be with the workers, perhaps rightly, but also perhaps resulting in some biased editing choices (the attitudes of Borman and previous Eastern chairman Eddie Rickenbacker are described as “militaristic,” and we don’t see them or any other management person at home, swinging one of their children, as we do one of the labor people).

Despite this possible slant, “The Battle for Eastern Airlines” is a first-rate documentary about a struggle whose implications reach far beyond the fate of one company and one group of employees.

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