For a union that has long been known as “a country club,” composed of members with little concern for other industry workers, the breadth of support provided by the Air Line Pilots Assn. to striking Eastern Airlines machinists marks a major turning point.
“The solidarity there is very striking,” said Walter Licht, a labor history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, referring to the fact that, by union estimates, fewer than 100 of Eastern’s 3,600 pilots have crossed picket lines.
This overwhelming show of support has been the critical factor in bringing Eastern’s operations to a virtual halt, and it led the company on Monday to seek a court order to force the pilots back to work.
Have to Stick Together
The actions of Eastern’s pilots reflect enlightened self interest, according to Rick Chapman, a member of the union’s master executive council at Eastern. “If you don’t stick together, you’re surely going to hang apart,” he said.
“The big reason the Eastern pilots have responded in the way they have is they realize (that) what (Frank) Lorenzo is doing to their airline, and trying to do to them, ultimately will result in the destruction of Eastern,” Chapman said in a telephone interview from Miami. Lorenzo is chairman of Texas Air Corp.
Chapman stressed that, since Texas Air Corp. purchased Eastern in February, 1986, the company had sold off some of its “crown jewels, its most profitable parts.” Specifically, he referred to Eastern’s pending sale of its profitable East Coast shuttle service to Donald Trump and the sale of its sophisticated computer reservations system to its sister company Continental, for which Eastern has yet to receive any cash.
Eastern spokesman Jim Ashlock said that the degree to which the pilots have honored the machinists’ picket lines discloses that “their sense of animosity was deeper than we thought.”
Whatever the pilots’ motivation, it is clear that their union has changed. In the past, pilots--whose salaries traditionally are more than double and sometimes more than triple those of the flight attendants, machinists and ground personnel who work for the same carrier--frequently would not honor the picket lines of other workers in airline strikes.
Now “they are becoming more trade union oriented, less the aristocrats of labor,” Licht said.
“We’re extremely proud of the way they’ve stood up to Frank Lorenzo with us,” said Jim Conley, a spokesman for the International Assn. of Machinists. “They’ve proved themselves part of the family of labor,” he added.
“The pilots went through a lot of soul searching” to get where they are today, said Frank Spencer, emeritus professor of transportation at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, who was a member of the union’s executive council years ago when he was an American Airlines pilot.
Several related events changed the stance of the pilots’ union.
The first was deregulation of the airlines in 1978. Prior to that, fares were set by the now defunct Civil Aeronautics Board. Companies raised fares to compensate for increased costs, including wages. With the coming of deregulation, competition increased and airlines looked for as many ways as possible to cut costs. Often, the first place they looked was worker salaries.
Precedent on Salaries
Then, in 1983, American Airlines obtained new contracts with all its unions, including pilots, that provided for lowered starting salaries. That set a precedent for the creation of two-tier pay scales industry-wide.
That same year, Lorenzo, as chief executive of Continental Airlines, declared that airline bankrupt and abrogated its collective bargaining agreements. He has operated Continental as a non-union airline ever since.
Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of California, Berkeley, said the Continental experience showed the pilots that they were going to have to be much tougher.
The first major sign that the pilots were going to be aggressive was given in 1985, when they waged a successful 29-day strike against United Airlines. The union’s members held together much better than they had in the past.
And they won kudos from others in the labor movement for a well-run “family support” program and for a series of high-tech video teleconferences that enabled pilots around the country to communicate directly with their leaders and with one another.
Still, for weeks before the Eastern strike began, there were questions about what the pilots would do if the machinists were unable to reach a contract agreement with the company.
The machinists hardly took the pilots’ support for granted. Both William Winpisinger, president of the machinists, and Charles Bryan, president of the largest machinists’ local at Eastern, made concerted efforts to “court” Henry Duffy, the pilots’ union president, according to Arthur Shostak, professor of sociology at Drexel University in Pennsylvania and an expert on airline labor relations.
“Labor has learned a lot about the indispensability” of mutual aid in the last decade, he said.
Lorenzo attempted to split the pilots from the machinists by sweetening an offer of a new contract to the pilots’ union. But those negotiations broke down when the pilots’ leaders concluded that Eastern still wanted $64 million in concessions from them.
Chapman said that Lorenzo and his subordinates “insulted the intelligence” of the pilots in recent bargaining. “The last thing we had on the table was a status quo contract and a ‘fence agreement’ that would have assured that Eastern would survive and continue,” he said, referring to proposals that would have limited the amount of work that Eastern could subcontract and restricted the transfer of assets to Continental.
Chapman acknowledged that Eastern was in precarious condition, saying that the airline, “as it exists today, can’t survive.”
The company needs new management that has credibility with its workers, debt restructuring and reduced labor costs, he said. But, in order for workers to accept changed conditions, he said, “we have to be assured there is a future here. So far, Frank Lorenzo hasn’t allowed this company to succeed.”
A source close to the machinists said the pilots clearly were trying to do more than demonstrate solidarity. They have a clear interest in “squeezing Lorenzo” to the point where he would sell Eastern to a buyer who would seriously try to revive the carrier, the source said.
The pilots’ stance in the Eastern struggle will have ramifications for future organizing by other unions, Prof. Shostak said. “If the pilots stay strong, it helps labor’s organizing as it looks to organize” new groups of professionally trained workers, he said. “The picture of those distinguished looking, uniform-wearing guys with epaulets on their shoulders walking picket lines” has to help labor, Shostak said.