The Bush Administration on Friday refused to intervene to avert an Eastern Airlines strike that threatened to disrupt the nation’s transportation system, but it vowed it would not allow the confrontation to “hold the American economy hostage.”
The Administration decision all but ensured that a strike of Eastern union machinists would begin at 9 p.m. PST Friday as scheduled.
Its effects could spread far beyond the airline if pilots, flight attendants, railroad employees and other transportation workers refuse to cross the striking machinists’ picket lines as they have threatened.
Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner sternly warned unions not to engage in secondary boycotts of other transportation companies, saying that the Administration is “not going to be intimidated” by attempts to spread the job action.
He said the Administration would seek emergency legislation to outlaw the boycotts if the strike became widespread in order “to ensure that this country never faces such a peril again.”
“We will not stand idly by while the grievances of a few jeopardize the continued safe and efficient transportation of all,” he said at a press conference.
As the strike deadline approached Friday night, negotiators for Eastern’s management and the 8,500-member machinists union--which includes mechanics, baggage handlers and other ground workers--met with members of the National Mediation Board here in a last-minute attempt to resolve the dispute.
But union officials rejected as unsatisfactory a compromise offer proposed by Eastern the night before, and representatives of both sides saw little prospect that a walkout could be avoided.
The nation’s eighth-largest airline, which says it is losing $1 million a day, is demanding that the machinists agree to pay cuts of up to 28%. The union, which originally sought $50 million in raises, has refused to accept cuts.
In preparation for a strike, Eastern announced Friday night that it would slash weekend schedules by 75%, eliminating service to 57 cities. It vowed to continue service to 50 other cities despite pledges by unions representing Eastern’s pilots and flight attendants not to cross the machinists’ picket lines.
To safeguard passenger safety, Transportation Secretary Skinner pledged that the Federal Aviation Administration would step up its surveillance of the airline’s operations to prevent vandalism or sabotage and to ensure that “Eastern’s service will be on planes that are airworthy and safe.”
But the effects of the strike appeared likely to spread to other airlines as well, as the Air Line Pilots Assn. asked its member pilots to honor the machinists’ picket lines. Earlier, Lane Kirkland, president of the 14.1-million-member AFL-CIO, had urged other transportation workers to act in solidarity with the striking machinists.
The machinists have threatened to extend their picket lines to other air and rail carriers to increase the pressure for a settlement.
In a statement, President Bush strongly urged “responsible labor leaders” not to join in the walkout.
“Such boycotts would unfairly burden millions of citizens, not only preventing necessary travel but also affecting shipments of consumer goods and the ability of many workers to earn a living,” he said in the statement read by Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater.
In declining to use presidential authority to order a 60-day cooling-off period, Bush became the first President to refuse a request by federal mediators for action that would forestall an airline strike.
Skinner said presidential intervention “would totally destroy the collective bargaining process in this country” and would serve only to postpone a strike that most regard as inevitable.
“It is time for this dispute to come to an end,” he said of the prolonged stalemate between the two sides.
But the decision was widely criticized by the union leaders and politicians who had asked Bush to heed the request of National Mediation Board Chairman Walter Wallace and appoint a Presidential Emergency Board in order to avert the potentially crippling strike for 60 days.
“We now face the possibility of a commerce-threatening disruption of our national transportation system . . . " said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who with 33 other senators had urged action to postpone the strike. “The wisest course is to prevent a crisis rather than try to pick up the pieces after it has happened.”
William W. Winpisinger, present of the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said the Bush decision “sends a signal to the traveling public and to employers alike that government will play no role in such a critical situation in which the public as well as the employees are victims.”
“It seems a shame that the President who pledged a ‘kinder and gentler nation’ during the campaign would not manifest that spirit now,” he said.
The prospect that the Eastern strike would affect other airlines and railroads across the country results from provisions of the Railway Labor Act, which exempts certain transportation workers from laws prohibiting striking workers from setting up picket lines in front of other workplaces.
The Administration denounced that exemption in announcing its decision to let the Eastern strike proceed, contending that there was “no legitimate reason for treating the railroads and airlines any differently.”
Saying that a strike by Eastern alone would not “deprive any section of the country” of essential services, Skinner declared: “It is only by way of secondary boycotts, across all modes of transportation, that the traveling public and this nation’s economy will face the prospect of inconvenience or grave harm.”
Eastern, owned by Texas Air Corp., flies 100,000 passengers a day and has a market share of 6% of the industry’s revenue passenger miles.
Job actions spreading to other airlines “could not be tolerated,” Skinner said, saying the Administration would ask Congress to pass emergency legislation to outlaw secondary boycotts.
While Congress has shown no appetite for such action in the past, Skinner said he believed legislators’ constituents would back the Administration. “I don’t think the American traveling public understands why their right to travel in this country should be disrupted by an unrelated labor dispute in Miami, Fla.,” he said.
Mechanics Sent Home
Even before the strike was scheduled to start, the Eastern dispute began affecting air travel in some parts of the country Friday. Eastern sent its mechanics home on pay Friday morning, saying there had been threats of vandalism to the planes, and in Washington, Miami and other cities, machinists staged demonstrations that slowed airport traffic and caused some commuters to miss their flights.
Meanwhile, Eastern passengers reported difficulties after the airline, concerned about the prospect of worker sabotage, won permission from a federal judge in Miami to send machinists home on a paid holiday and enlisted supervisors to work in their place.
Passengers arriving at Washington’s National Airport struggled to make connections despite late flights and missing baggage, while those trying to leave waited in unusually long ticket lines.
An afternoon flight from Miami arrived almost three hours late after sitting on the runway in Florida. Ruth St. Orge, who was on the flight, said: “They just couldn’t find anybody to put the bags on the plane.”
The intense animosity between labor and management at Eastern dates from early 1986, when the company was taken over by Texas Air Corp., headed by Frank Lorenzo, regarded even then as the archenemy of labor.
Blaming the airline’s financial troubles on high labor costs, Lorenzo sought union agreements for sharp wage cuts, prompting union officials to charge that he was seeking to break up the union altogether.
The airline, which has had only one profitable year since deregulation began a decade ago, continues to reel from financial trouble. It posted a record loss last year of $335.4 million, nearly double the $181.7 million loss of 1987.
Independent analysts believe that the airline’s problems are so severe that a lengthy strike could drive it into bankruptcy. “In terms of cash flow, it is my belief that Eastern will be able to survive a strike of 30 days or less,” said Paul Karos, airline analyst with First Boston Corp., a New York stock brokerage.
Staff writers Robert Dallos in New York and Michael D. Shear in Washington contributed to this story.