Continental Airlines’ flight attendants will strike the company at airports around the country starting at 7 a.m. PST today, the president of the Continental flight attendants union disclosed in an interview Sunday night.
The strike is likely to create further problems for beleaguered Texas Air Corp., whose other principal subsidiary, Eastern Airlines, has been the target of a strike since March 4 that has shut down 90% of its flights and prompted the company to seek protection from its creditors by filing in federal bankruptcy court.
‘Lot of Disruption’
The Continental strike “could cause a lot of disruption” of the company’s operations, particularly because Continental has added more flights to its normal route structure since the Eastern strike began, Carla Winkler, president of the Union of Flight Attendants, said in a telephone interview from Houston, Continental’s headquarters.
The union represents about 6,800 flight attendants at several bases around the country, Winkler said.
“If a work stoppage occurs, Continental is fully prepared to operate 100% of its schedule,” company spokesman David Messing said early today. “We don’t feel there would be any impact on us or our customers.”
Messing said Continental operates about 1,400 flights daily serving 120 cities in the United States and numerous foreign countries.
Winkler said her members authorized a strike by an 80%-20% vote in December and that the union has been free to strike since then. She said she expected strong support from the members for the strike, though she acknowledged that about 800 of Continental’s attendants are still probationary employees and thus less likely to participate in the walkout.
Continental’s flight attendants, although represented by a union, have been operating without a collective bargaining agreement since September, 1983, when Frank Lorenzo, chairman of Texas Air Corp., took Continental into bankruptcy and abrogated all his union contracts.
“We’ve been bargaining with Continental officials for more than five years attempting to get a new contract,” without any success, Winkler said. “We’re far and away the lowest-paid attendants in the airline industry.”
A typical attendant with five years’ experience at Continental makes $1,005 a month after taxes, Winkler said, compared to $1,752 a month after taxes for a typical American Airlines attendant with the same experience level.
“And the Continental attendant will work more hours in a day and more days in a month, with shorter rest periods between assignments and has to pay more for health insurance,” Winkler said.
Continental has taken the position that it cannot pay its attendants as much as they would like, because the company is in poor financial condition. Indeed, in the last two years, Continental has lost $573.6 million.
However, Winkler said, wages are not the only issues on which the two sides have failed to reach agreement. She said the company’s “last and final offer” made to the union a year ago allows the airline to “contract out” some of the work now being done by Continental employees, allows the company to use foreign nationals on an unlimited basis on Continental flights abroad, permits the company to reopen the contract at any time it chooses and contained no minimum industry standards on working conditions.
After the attendants rejected the proposal last spring by 80% to 20%, subsequent bargaining failed to produce significant improvements in the company offer, she said. Normally, in airline collective bargaining, which is governed by the Railway Labor Act, when negotiations reach an impasse, the government imposes a 30-day “cooling-off period” in hopes that an agreement can be reached without a strike. However, because there has been no collective bargaining agreement at Continental since 1983, both sides have been in what is known as a “self-help” situation, Winkler said.
This means that management is free to impose the terms of its offer and the union is free to strike without there having been a prior “cooling-off period,” Winkler said.
New Work Rules
On Jan. 1, Continental imposed new work rules and some wage increases, Winkler said, adding that union officials continued to negotiate with Continental executives, including a meeting in mid-March with Joesph Corr, the company’s chief executive, in hopes of averting a strike. She asserted that Continental could have improved its wage offer to the attendants substantially and still be paying wages well under the industry average.
But those negotiations produced no changes in the company’s position and the union’s nine-member executive board decided that now was the appropriate time to strike.
“George Bush keeps saying that the employees at Eastern should just sit down and bargain with Lorenzo,” she said. “Well it takes two to bargain.”
Winkler, a 20-year veteran at Continental, said she hoped the fact that Continental’s flight attendants are striking would make it clear to the traveling public and government officials that “the problem with Lorenzo isn’t just at Eastern.”
Winkler said she expected some Continental pilots to honor the attendants’ picket lines but she would not predict how many.
She said the company had “cross-trained” 200 of its ground personnel, including reservations workers and secretaries, to do attendants’ work after the union took its strike authorization vote in December. She said Continental currently has 70 attendants in training, in addition to the 800 probationary employees, most of whom, she said, are unlikely to strike.
Eastern Airlines says it will start hiring replacements for picketing pilots. Business, Page 2.