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TWU Local 553 vs. Eastern Airlines: 1989

Flight Attendants Innovate; ALPA & IAM Stagnate
TWU local 553 vs. Eastern Airlines:1989

From envelope of organizing/fund-raising mailing to tens of thousands of unions nationwide from CCI's database

Flight attendants who were members of Transport Workers Union Local 553, headed by Mary Jane Barry, joined with members of the Air Line Pilots Association in refusing to cross picket lines of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The IAM maintenance and ground crew members were on strike against Eastern Airlines and its notorious owner, Frank Lorenzo.

From the beginning of the strike, the flight attendants' input was neither sought nor welcomed by IAM or ALPA. The media practically ignored them. As the strike dragged on, it was clear that Lorenzo would rather see the airline go under than remain strongly unionized. It was also clear that the IAM and ALPA lacked the kind of dynamic strategy that could exert economic and political pressures to force Lorenzo either to settle or turn over control of the airline to others who would negotiate in good faith.

Although Corporate Campaign, Inc. became involved in the strike very late, a lot was accomplished with the flight attendants. In four months, CCI raised more than $300,000 for a nearly bankrupt local through direct mail appeals; produced comprehensive corporate research and literature; organized distribution of hundreds of thousands of leaflets and brochures, and developed strategy and tactics that bolstered the strike.

TWU local 553 vs. Eastern Airlines:1989

TWU Local 553 President Mary Jane Barry [far right]  & Ray Rogers supporting United Farm Workers grape boycott

In addition, CCI pressured TIAA-CREF, the nation's largest teachers' pension and retirement fund, to divest approximately 1.7 million shares of Texas Air stock; developed a travel agency/ticket counter boycott outreach program, and helped generate wider media coverage focusing on the flight attendants, including headline news in sensitive airline markets overseas.

It was the flight attendants' corporate strategy initiative that first highlighted the links between Eastern, Continental and Scandinavian Airlines Systems (SAS), the national carrier of Sweden, Norway and Denmark. SAS had aligned itself with Lorenzo by purchasing 10% of Texas Air's stock, having its chief executive join Texas Air's board of directors and agreeing to pay Texas Air $50 million to help SAS get a foothold in the U.S. market. The flight attendants called for a boycott of all three airlines and led a Miami-to-Newark/New York caravan of airline employees that included stops to rally broader grassroots' support and demonstrations at TIAA-CREF offices and at the consulates and embassies of the Scandinavian countries.

TWU local 553 vs. Eastern Airlines:1989

Cover of CCI produced brochure: Continental was set up as a "scab" airline by Frank Lorenzo in an effort to destroy Eastern Airlines

CCI's strategic analysis of Texas Air Corp. (parent company of Eastern) clearly showed that Lorenzo did not operate in a vacuum. His big financial backers included Texas Air board member Carl Pohlad, owner of baseball's Minnesota Twins, and Marquette Bank in Minnesota. Pohlad also sat on the board of the Minnesota-based Carlson Companies, which owned a large network of travel agencies that could steer travelers to Eastern, Continental and SAS. Meanwhile, Pohlad's fellow Texas Air board member I.H. Handmaker and Carlson Companies chairman Curtis Carlson both sat on the board of consumer products company MEI Diversified Inc., whose chairman was none other than Carl Pohlad, a large stockholder in MEI for many years. Lorenzo also had hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds and millions of shares of stock in his airline companies held by insurance companies that did substantial business with unions, their members and their allies.

Pohlad and certain financial institutions felt they could gamble on Lorenzo and enjoy a profitable relationship with him as long as the unions did not move the Eastern fight directly onto their own doorsteps. Had the unions done so, they would have created an entirely different set of dynamics and the kind of economic and political pressures that could have forced Lorenzo out of his "catbird seat" and avoided the destruction of Eastern. Instead, the leadership of the IAM and ALPA refused to unleash the full potential of the strikers and their supporters. Ultimately, they based their hopes of victory on either government intervention in their behalf (never likely in the reign of George Bush, no friend of unions) or a "white knight" (like airline union-busters Peter Ueberroth or Carl Icahn) buying Eastern.

The IAM and ALPA made matters worse through their own naivete, ignorance and arrogance. They could never figure out how to combine their immense financial resources, the solidarity of more than 18,000 striking ground crew members, pilots and flight attendants, and the strong antipathy of the public and the media toward Lorenzo into the kind of highly visible victory for which labor was starving in the 1980s. In the end, Eastern was destroyed, as were the careers and the financial and emotional stability of many Eastern employees. Ultimately, Lorenzo was barred from operating another airline, but he and his close allies remained awash in money.

An editorial in the Jan. 1, 1990 issue of The Nation stated: "The one leadership group willing to experiment was that of the flight attendants' union... They hired Ray Rogers to help organize a corporate campaign... When they proposed a solidarity caravan from Miami to New York, the leaders of ALPA and of the machinists rebuffed them and organized their own...The perpetuation of sexism in this strike was all the more outrageous because the flight attendants had the most to lose from joining the strike. They alone received no strike benefits...Their own international contributed a mere $25,000 to Local 553 during the strike...The will of the strikers was squandered by leaders with a will to lose."