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JOSEPH N. BELL

Lost in the Big Picture of Big Business Is the Vulnerable, Small Guy

June 08, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Almost 100 Orange County residents are watching the bloodletting at Eastern Airlines with more than passing interest. They know that behind the headlines are stories of the human price paid for the wheeling and dealing among the power brokers who play companies like chips in a high-stakes poker game.

They know because they still carry the scars--some of them so deep they will never heal--from the last head-to-head slugfest with the same management, headed by Frank Lorenzo, that is trying to keep Eastern afloat in spite of a crippling and bitter strike.

Lorenzo took over Continental several years ago and put it through bankruptcy, breaking the unions whose members had served the airline since its beginning. Almost a hundred Continental pilots and their families caught up in that struggle lived--and still live--in Orange County.

It's not my intent here to debate the merits or issues of that long and destructive strike. When Lorenzo took over Continental, he made pay- cut demands that the pilots found unacceptable and precipitated their strike.

The exchanges grew increasingly angry and bitter as many of the strikers felt abandoned by their union as well as their employer--and finally, by the courts. The cost of that struggle in human despair and dislocation--seldom seen by the public--was enormous. And, in one Orange County home, lethal.

The widow of a striking Laguna Niguel Continental pilot who took his life in 1985 in an agony of depression and desperation talked with me on the condition that I not use names. The family has suffered enough, she says, without attracting new attention to erode the healing process. Her husband was a former Marine fighter pilot and Vietnam combat veteran who left the military service to work his way up to a senior pilot rating for Continental.

"We'd gone through strikes before," says his widow. "They're part of business life in our system. But they were settled by people of good will on both sides. We were pretty naive at the time--a very close-knit group. We had no idea it would go the way it did."

The way it went was a two-year standoff that ended finally when a bankruptcy court gave the striking pilots three options, two of which involved coming back to work on the company's terms, without the protection of the union; the third was a buyout in which the pilots and Continental parted company. Returning pilots had to face the humiliation of loss of seniority and an extended period of requalification.

That resolution came as too little and too late for many Orange County residents, including the 49-year-old ex-Marine fighter pilot who put all of his affairs in impeccable order--and then took his own life. Says his widow: "He changed so much in the last few months. I suggested he go away for a while. He had just bought a new pickup truck, and I thought maybe he would drive it across the country to see his parents. I never knew him to give up before, but flying was his whole life, and at my husband's age, he didn't know anything else to do--or any place else to go. And he was so very, very depressed."

One of his daughters (there were three children), who works as a paralegal in a Newport Beach law firm, told me: "The previous management cared about its people, but the new management simply yanked the rug from under everyone's lives. My dad said that the reason the pilots were fighting so hard was that a terrible precedent would be set for other businesses if they allowed this to happen. All my dad ever wanted to do was his job--and to do it well. He worked for 20 years. Then they told him, 'If you come back, you start from day one.' We were into month 18 of the strike when my dad passed away."

Fear of retaliation is still palpable. I talked with two Continental pilots who chose to return after the strike; both insisted on anonymity. One of them pointed out that "there was misrepresentation on both sides. (The union) was not prepared to fight a war and ended up by throwing us to the dogs to save the national (organization). The strikers at Eastern are benefiting from our experience. Their interests are being handled much better as a result."

Said the other pilot: "One of the things that happened to the striking pilots was wholesale divorce. After awhile, wives wanted their husbands to go back to work, and the pilots didn't want to cave in. Company literature constantly fed this by selling fear. They offered us our last chance to come back about every two months. There were also a lot of homes lost and pride and self-esteem badly damaged. One of our older pilots had put all his money into a house that was going to provide for his retirement. When he couldn't keep up the payments, he saved it through bankruptcy. At least he learned that much from Lorenzo."

John Jensen, one veteran Continental captain who didn't object to his name being used, simply got out of flying. Today, he runs Laguna Home Repair, a handyman service with a lot less built-in stress. But he keeps in touch. There is still a strong feeling of comradeship among the survivors of the Continental struggle, and a group of Orange County pilots still meets every few months to union-bash and Lorenzo-bash and relive old battles.

There are also several lawsuits pending in the aftermath of the Continental bankruptcy, and its veterans seem to feel strongly that the same tactics are not going to work again with Eastern.

"Everybody learned something from our fight," said one of the Continental pilots. "We just learned it too late--and paid one hell of a price."

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