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The Case of the Missing Milk Cartons : It Was Only a Minor Theft but Airline and Attendant Agree It's Now a Major Case

April 10, 1988|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

After more than 24 years as a Trans World Airlines flight attendant, Elizabeth Rich was fired. The charge: theft of company property. The goods: four leftover half-pint cartons of milk and a TWA toilet kit issued to a New York-to-Paris passenger who left it behind in a seat pocket.

Rich is not disputing that she took the items--"TWA's garbage," she calls them--nor does she condone theft. But, in this case, she believes she was targeted as a scapegoat because of her activism during a 1986 flight attendants' strike and her criticism of cost-cutting tactics by board chairman Carl Icahn, the multimillionaire corporate raider who took over TWA early in 1986.

Rich, 53, contends that she and other senior flight attendants who have been recalled to duty since the strike ended have been "harassed" and "spied on" by management personnel intent on replacing them. TWA insists it is an open-and-shut case of petty theft.

Whatever the interpretation, Rich's case has mushroomed from a small-scale case of employee theft into a national cause celebre, complete with a sympathetic segment on CBS' "60 Minutes" show. In the process, her story has taken on the trappings of a union crusade, in which the New York-based Independent Federation of Flight Attendants accuses TWA management of the "McDonald-izing" of flight attendants, with fast turnover as the goal.

It has also become the tale of a bitter personal feud between Rich and her accuser, a co-worker, and of lingering union resentment against the airline and its flamboyant new owner.

Rich believes she is fighting not only for herself but for her fellow strikers, most of whom, she says, "don't want to fight because they can't afford to lose their jobs again." Of the 3,800 who have not been called back, she says, "The majority have not committed themselves to another career. They want to go back to flying."

Mark Buckstein, TWA senior vice president and general counsel, categorically denies any harassment of former strikers. In fact, he says the company has done a careful statistical study and has "found a dramatically larger portion of the new hires have been either disciplined, suspended or terminated than the strikers. There's absolutely no truth to the suggestion that we are out to get anybody like Liz Rich. It is totally false."

The Liz Rich issue, says Victoria Frankovich, president of the flight attendants union, is "just part of a bigger problem" which she identifies as "pressure for the corporations to find a way to rid themselves of the more senior and more costly work force."

Frankovich is not excusing Rich's actions. "Liz did not use good judgment in taking milk off the airliner," she says. "No employee should walk off with an employer possession, whether it's garbage or not." But, she adds, in view of her "perfect work record," Rich received disproportionately "harsh treatment"--yes, she was a scapegoat.

"I have to tell you honestly," Icahn responds, "until the last few weeks I never heard of Liz Rich, let alone targeted her."

"That's also true for me," says TWA President D. Joseph Corr, who adds, "we try to go out of our way to make the people coming back welcome."

Rich's troubles began Oct. 6 when TWA Flight 800 touched down at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris about 6:30 a.m., after a six-hour flight from New York. "Every flight is understaffed," Rich says, this one no exception. A "floater," she was working several cabins of the L1011.

TWA flight attendants, including Rich, had struck the airline in March, 1986, in response to what the union saw as Icahn's effort to recoup $320 million to help cover takeover costs by imposing cuts on employees. The cuts included a 40% wage and benefits cut for 5,200 flight attendants, 85% of whom were women, one-third of them 40 or older, with an average 15 years' service with TWA and an average salary of $30,000-$35,000, Frankovich says. New hires are being brought in at $12,000, she adds.

The strike lasted 72 days, the union capitulating rather than see wholesale replacement of the work force. Two years later, 3,800 members of the pre-strike work force are still not back on the job while 2,100 flight attendants hired during the strike to replace the strikers are on active status.

By law, the company must cease hiring from the outside and start rehiring, by seniority, from a preferential list that includes all of the former strikers, until that list is depleted. To date, a total of 1,400 flight attendants have been rehired, according to a union spokeswoman. Rich had been called back to full-time employment in April, 1987, after almost 14 months off the job.

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