Defying the Bush Administration, the House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly for legislation that would force President Bush to form an emergency board to investigate and report on the Eastern Airlines strike.
The measure, which passed by a 252-167 margin after heated debate along partisan lines, must still be acted upon by the Senate, where its chances are uncertain. Then, the measure would have to be signed by Bush, who is being advised by Administration officials to veto it.
The bill directs the President to empanel the board, as authorized under the Railway Labor Act, in order to help solve the impasse among Eastern, the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the Air Line Pilots Assn., and the Transport Workers Union of America. The machinists struck March 4 after refusing Eastern’s demand for $125 million a year in wage and benefit concessions, and virtually all of the airline’s pilots and flight attendants have refused to cross picket lines.
If the board were formed, its practical effect would be to provide a “cooling-off period” of 21 days during which striking workers would have to return to their jobs. Under the legislation, Bush would be allowed to extend that period by another five days.
During the floor debate, opposition centered on contentions that there is not a crisis in the transportation system and that the parties should work out their differences among themselves and allow Eastern’s filing for protection from creditors under the bankruptcy laws to play itself out in the courts.
One opponent, Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R-Ark.), said creation of the board “cannot be justified on either legal or policy grounds.”
“Although there is some inconvenience to passengers,” Hammerschmidt said, “the Eastern strike has not caused the sort of deprivation of essential transportation that would justify an emergency board under the law.” Other carriers, he said, can adjust their schedules to accommodate passengers’ needs.
But supporters of the measure asserted that the bill would help save Eastern, the jobs of its employees and the communities that depend on the airline for their livelihoods.
California Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-San Pedro), chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, said, “Eastern’s demise would be an economic disaster; it would cause the loss of up to 30,000 jobs and a billion-dollar payroll, as well as substantial economic damage” to communities nationwide with Eastern Airlines operations.
Predictably, Eastern’s unions lauded the House action while Eastern officials criticized it.
“We are delighted that the House acted quickly,” said Charles Bryan, head of the striking machinists union local. “While the President was not in favor of taking action earlier, he might now not want to be identified as promoting the interests of Frank Lorenzo,” who is head of the Texas Air holding company that owns Eastern.
Capt. Jack Bavis, chairman of Eastern’s pilots union local, was also pleased by the vote. “We are gratified to find that the members of Congress realize the necessity of appointing a board in an attempt to reach a fair and equitable agreement in the labor-management dispute at our airline,” he said.
However, Eastern spokesman Jim Ashlock said, “We are still against it.” He added that creation of an emergency board to investigate the dispute would be “blatant interference with the collective-bargaining process and is being sought for no reason other than to maintain the status quo that is creating extensive daily losses at Eastern.”
He predicted defeat for the legislation in the Senate and noted that the House vote was not large enough for the two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill over a presidential veto.
Meanwhile, a number of airlines denied reports that they have raised ticket prices and increased fare restrictions as a result of the strike, which has grounded more than 90% of Eastern’s flights.
Edwin Colodny, chairman and president of USAir Group, told a group of airline analysts in New York on Wednesday that he does not expect his firm’s USAir subsidiary to benefit significantly from the strike. He said, however, that Piedmont Airlines, which is also owned by USAir Group, probably will grow in the Southeastern U.S. markets where it competes directly with Eastern.
A USAir spokesman, David Shipley, said later that the airline has not raised any fares since the strike began.
Delta Air Lines spokeswoman Jackie Pate said Delta also has not raised fares as a result of the strike. She conceded, however, that it has tightened ticket restrictions in some markets.
American Airlines said it has not raised fares and has not changed the number of seats sold at a discount. A lot of such Maxsaver fares had already been sold out before the strike began.
Midway Airlines, a regional discount airline, said its Chicago-to-Miami and Chicago-to-Atlanta coach fares have been raised $10 one-way. But spokeswoman Sandra Allen said the new fares had been set before the onset of the strike and that the timing was coincidental.
In another development, a Texas Air spokesman, Art Kent, refused to confirm or deny reports that the New York investment bank of Drexel Burnham Lambert had been asked to find a buyer for Eastern. But he did not deny that Eastern is on the auction block.