Union machinists at Eastern Airlines early today launched a strike that government officials feared could spread across the transportation system, disrupting air and rail travel nationwide.
On Friday, President Bush had refused to intervene in the dispute.
In Miami, several hundred striking machinists “charged” one of the gates to Eastern’s headquarters just after the strike began, throwing rocks and bottles, but were repelled by Miami police, according to an Eastern spokeswoman. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Across the nation, machinists--who had been asked by the airline to take pay cuts--immediately formed picket lines at Eastern’s airport ticket counters, and threatened to spread their protests to other airlines and railroads.
“Eastern Airlines is officially on strike,” chief union negotiator Charles E. Bryan told reporters as he emerged from a marathon day of negotiations. “As of midnight, it’s shut down.”
The strike began only half an hour after Eastern made a last-ditch proposal to the machinists union slightly improving the terms.
“This is good-faith show here,” said Joe Leonard, chief operating officer of Eastern. “We are trying to put our best proposal forward within the last half hour.”
Federal officials watched warily for signs that pilots, flight attendants, and other workers at other carriers might mount their own boycotts in sympathy for the Eastern action as they have threatened, snarling the nation’s transportation network.
Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, vowing not to let labor unions “hold the economy hostage,” said that if the strike became widespread the Administration would seek emergency action “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,” Skinner declared at a press conference here.
In a related action, the Associated Press reported, the Airline Pilots Assn. announced that starting next Tuesday, its 40,000 members would begin to follow flying procedures precisely, causing a slowdown in airport procedures.
At Los Angeles International Airport Friday, about 60 pickets appeared in front of the Eastern Airlines terminal at 9:15 p.m. Some carried pre-printed posters saying that the machinists were striking the airline. Others carried hand-written posters saying simply “IAM"--indicating the International Assn. of Machinists. The long-threatened strike by 8,500 Eastern machinists--who include mechanics, baggage handlers and other ground personnel--began when a 60-day cooling-off period calling for mandatory federal mediation expired.
In the waning hours of talks, the nation’s eighth-largest airline, which is losing $1.5 million a day, offered significantly to reduce the wage takebacks it has sought from its machinist workers, according to Eastern officials. But the union, which originally sought $50 million in raises, maintained its refusal 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 line.
To safeguard passenger safety, 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 40,000 member Air Line Pilots Assn. asked its member pilots to honor the machinists’ picket lines. Earlier, Lane Kirkland, president of the 1.1-million-member AFL-CIO, had urged other transportation workers to act in solidarity with the striking machinists.
William R. Robertson, executive secretary of the Los Angles County Federation of Labor, said that such secondary boycotts in the airline industry would be unprecedented, although similar tactics have been used in past rail labor disputes.
After declaring that the Eastern strike was on, machinists union negotiators refused to discuss their plans for seeking secondary boycotts. The officials said the union’s strategy would be announced at a briefing here early today.
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 White House spokesman 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 regarded as inevitable.
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.
On Friday, 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. In Washington, Miami and other cities, machinists staged demonstrations that slowed airport traffic and caused some commuters to miss their flights.
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 Scot J. Paltrow in Miami, Robert Dallos in New York and Michael D. Shear, Cathleen Decker and David G. Savage in Washington contributed to this story.
STRIKE AT EASTERN
Here is a basic summary of what’s involved in the Eastern Airlines strike:
The airline: Eastern, headquartered in Miami, is owned by Houston-based Texas Air Corp., whose other primary subsidiary is Continental Airlines. Eastern has a fleet of 250 jets. The company typically has 1,040 flights daily, carrying about 100,000 passengers, to 118 cities.
The union: Eastern’s 8,500 mechanics and other ground personnel are represented by the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
THE CHIEF ISSUE:
Eastern has lost more than $500 million in the last two years and more than a billion dollars in the last decade. The company contends that much of its losses are a result of high labor costs. When Texas Air Corp. bought Eastern three years ago, the company’s pilots and flight attendants agreed to 20% pay cuts.
Eastern is now seeking $125 million in wage concessions in a new 5-year contract, including cuts of up to 28% from the machinists. Mechanics currently averaging $18.83 per hour would have their pay cut to either $14, $16, or $18 depending on their skill level or the union could accept an across-the-board rate of $16. Baggage handlers who now make $15.60 an hour would be cut to $11.54 an hour.
The machinists, saying they have already given millions back to the company in prior years in the form of wage and work rule concessions, are asking for an immediate wage freeze but a total increase of 8% over the life of the contract.