For Ron Dunn, a veteran Los Angeles ramp serviceman for Eastern Airlines, the time had come to draw the line and “stop Lorenzo.”
So on Saturday, the 42-year-old Arcadia resident and 8,500 of his fellow unionists launched a high-risk strike in an effort to bring to heel their boss, Frank Lorenzo, chairman of Eastern’s parent company, Texas Air Corp.
The first day of the battle brought cheer to the hearts of the members of the International Assn. of Machinists, who were supported in demonstrations by members of unions across the country. Most critically, they had the full support of Eastern’s flight attendants and pilots. The airline’s operations came virtually to a halt.
“This is the greatest show of solidarity I’ve seen in the American labor movement,” said Charles Bryan, president of the machinists’ largest Eastern local, based in Miami.
Still, Dunn and numerous other picketing union members at Los Angeles International Airport were remarkably candid in acknowledging that strikes are hard to win these days. And they said they understood that the more successful unions are in shutting down Eastern, the greater are the prospects that Lorenzo would file for bankruptcy, and either abrogate his union contracts or liquidate the company, and in either case the strikers would lose their jobs.
Nonetheless, Dunn said it was worth the risk because he saw “no future” with the company the way it is running now, with Lorenzo transferring more and more of its assets to non-union Continental Airlines, the biggest company in Texas Air’s empire. The strikers said if they accepted the lowered wages and less favorable work rules Eastern was demanding, the savings simply would be passed on to Continental, and Eastern would continue to decline.
“What you’re seeing here is an act of sheer desperation when it appears there is no way out,” said Barry Bluestone, a University of Massachusetts political economist and co-author of the 1988 book “The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America.”
The Eastern clash clearly has ramifications for the entire labor movement, according to the strikers and a host of labor relations experts.
“The stakes are quite high here,” said Harley Shaiken, professor of labor and technology at UC San Diego.
“This is the first post-Reagan strike, and what we are seeing is a post-Reagan labor movement,” that is more willing to take chances because it is battered, bruised and angry, he said.
Shaiken said it was noteworthy that AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland announced before the Eastern strike began that the labor movement would launch a full-bore campaign in support of the company’s workers. Additionally, other key union leaders declared they would go so far as to attempt to disrupt other parts of the nation’s transportation system if necessary, through the use of secondary boycotts against railroads and safety slowdowns on some airlines.
Says Labor Is Galvanized
“What Lorenzo and Eastern have done is to galvanize the entire labor movement in a way that hasn’t existed for years,” Shaiken said. “Labor is attempting to broaden the terrain on which the strike will be fought,” he said, in clear recognition of the fact that simply picketing Eastern would not be enough.
But Audrey Freedman, a labor economist with the Conference Board in New York, said the union’s chances of victory were quite slim. They are “striking against changed conditions in the industry” and they cannot win on that battlefield, she said, referring to the increasingly competitive atmosphere in the deregulated airline industry.
In one respect, the Eastern strike is an aberration. In recent years, fewer and fewer American workers have been willing to take the risk of striking. Last year, the number of strikes was smaller than in any of the previous 42 years.
That statistic is a stark reflection of the fact that in the last decade the strike, once labor’s ultimate weapon, has been substantially diminished in power by a variety of factors: adverse court rulings, growing willingness of struck companies to try to keep operating, lowered union loyalty of workers and an increased tendency of American workers to cross picket lines.
In 1983, Greyhound crushed a strike by threatening to permanently replace striking workers. Nearly 57,000 people applied to fill 12,000 “vacancies” created by the strike. “That was the desperation of unemployment,” said Clyde Summers, a University of Pennsylvania labor law professor. “That showed that the notion that it’s indecent to cross a picket line, something that approaches a subtle form of class solidarity” had diminished substantially in the United States.
And in several instances in the last decade, threats to permanently replace strikers were executed. At Phelps Dodge Corp. in Morenci, Ariz., at George A. Hormel Co. in Austin, Minn., and at International Paper in Jay, Me., not only did the corporation prevail, but newly hired employees were kept on. At Phelps Dodge and Hormel, the union was decertified and that is expected to happen at International Paper too.
Some of the most severe losses experienced by unions in recent years have been in the airline industry. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers after declaring that their strike was illegal. Then, in 1983, Lorenzo declared bankruptcy at Continental and nullified his union contracts. Legislation passed subsequent to that makes it more difficult for an employer to declare bankruptcy, but even sympathizers of the machinists think that Lorenzo could take the company into Chapter 11, given its current condition.
Some Shun Strikes
In response to the setbacks of the 1980s, a growing number of unions have attempted to strengthen their hand in recent years by shunning the strike in favor of what are called “in-plant solidarity campaigns,” with tactics ranging from sing-alongs on the shop floor to mass grievance meetings over safety conditions.
Sometimes, employees “work to the rule,” meaning that they adhere strictly to company procedures and forgo shortcuts they normally utilize, thus slowing down production. Several unions, particularly the United Auto Workers in Missouri and Texas, the United Steelworkers in Oregon and the Service Employees in Massachusetts have won victories using these tactics.
The machinists considered launching such a campaign in lieu of a strike but rejected the idea, according to a well-placed union source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s hard to work to rule in a concentration camp,” the source said.
“Since Lorenzo took over Eastern in 1986--but accelerating over the last six months--the contract and its protections have meant less and less in the daily working lives of people there,” said the machinists source. “There’s not a single elected shop steward left on the Miami base who hasn’t been suspended. Words cannot convey the tension and repression people felt at work. That’s one reason why these people are so pumped up,” he added.
Hope to Create Problems
Just being pumped up will not produce victory, union leaders understand. Within days, the union hopes to get passengers to start boycotting Continental and creating other problems for that carrier. “The only way to get Lorenzo back to the table” is to put severe economic pressure on Continental, said a machinists source.
The degree to which the machinists and their allies are able to accomplish that remains to be seen. “There are 33,000 Eastern employees like myself, with families, with car notes and mortgages who have to maintain a standard of living,” said Idris Aziz, 37, an Eastern ramp serviceman at LAX. “If we let Lorenzo get away with this, it will be devastating” not just to Eastern’s employees but to other workers in the airline industry and other industries, as well, he said. “This is one of those cornerstone events.”