Eastern Airlines’ pilots voted late Wednesday to end a bitter nine-month walkout, but the airline’s mechanics said they would continue to strike.
The pilots’ decision to end their strike is largely symbolic because Eastern has replaced the 1,800 striking pilots and says it has no jobs to offer them.
Eastern’s pilots voted to end their dispute one day after President Bush vetoed legislation that would have created a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the strike. In his veto message, Bush said that Congress, which would have set up the panel, had no business interfering in contract disputes.
A spokesman for the pilots said the congressional panel had been the union’s last hope to resolve its differences with Eastern and its parent company, Texas Air Corp. “We ran out of options,” said the spokesman, pilot Wayne Dolan.
Charles Bryan, head of the striking machinists, was angered by the pilots’ move.
“Our ranks are unaffected by this,” Bryan said from his home in Miami. “The strike continues. We were the ones who were carrying the strike anyway for the last two or three months.
“Eastern has been desperate for maintenance and ground support,” he added. “We are unchanged by this decision.”
However, airline analysts said that the striking machinists also have been replaced.
Bryan said “it is unclear to me” why the pilots ended their strike. “Eastern claims they had all the pilots they needed when the pilots broke ranks and many crossed the picket lines in August.”
Art Kent, a spokesman for Texas Air, said that the pilots’ decision to end the strike was “a very interesting development,” adding: “It is unfortunate that it did not come earlier. We could have avoided all the trauma and heartache which has affected Eastern and its employees.”
Kent said that Eastern had no jobs available for the striking pilots, but he said that they could add their names to a waiting list that already contains 200 names.
“We hope the pilots’ action indicates a real willingness to sit down and work out the terms whereby Eastern and all its pilots can come together,” he said.
The Eastern pilots walked off the job on March 5 to support the striking International Assn. of Machinists, which represents mechanics and other ground workers. The strike’s immediate impact was significant, forcing Eastern to cancel 90% of its flights and lay off 7,000 non-union workers.
On March 9, a crippled Eastern filed for bankruptcy court protection from its creditors, then slowly began rebuilding as a much smaller airline. To raise money, it sold about one-third of its 255 aircraft as well as its profitable Northeast shuttle operations, which New York real-estate magnate Donald Trump now owns. It is talking with American Airlines about the possible sale of its Latin America routes.
The unions had hoped to force Texas Air Chairman Frank Lorenzo to sell Eastern, and the strike’s high point occurred in April, when Lorenzo did agree to sell the airline to a group headed by former baseball commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth for $464 million.
But the deal fell apart when the unions demanded that Lorenzo step down before the sale was completed and Lorenzo refused.
Eastern now has 1,800 pilots flying about 780 flights a day to 85 cities, down from 3,600 pilots and nearly 1,100 daily flights before the strike.
The participation of the pilots had been crucial to the machinists’ strike, because pilots are difficult to replace. But many Eastern pilots became disillusioned as the strike wore on, and 800 eventually returned to work. Another 800 pilots retired or went to work for other airlines.
Also, the strike forced a rift in the leadership of Eastern’s pilots’ union. The members voted to replace its conciliatory chairman with Skip Copeland, a hard-liner when it comes to management relations. On Wednesday, he accused Lorenzo of dismantling Eastern with a “scorched-earth policy.”
The machinists struck the airline over a contract dispute. Eastern sought $150 million in wage concessions, but the machinists sought $50 million in higher pay. Union officers said that most of Eastern’s 8,500 machinists have remained on strike.
Denise Gellene reported from Los Angeles and Robert E. Dallos from New York.