Labor Flexes Its Muscle in Dispute. STRIKE: EASTERN AIRLINES

THE five-day-old walkout against Eastern Airlines is rapidly becoming one of the major strikes of the decade. The issue is now bigger than a contract for 8,500 union mechanics and ground personnel. It is even bigger than the survival of the airline itself. What's at stake is labor's clout.

Unions are mounting a high-profile, two-front campaign to defeat Frank Lorenzo, chairman of the corporation that owns Eastern, and whom organized labor considers one of the nation's premier union-busters.

The campaign almost inevitably will be perceived as a key test for organized labor.

The first front of labor's campaign is economic. And so far it has been quite successful.

The strike by the International Association of Machinists (IAM) set Eastern back on its heels from the start. By Sunday, the airline had flown fewer than 100 of its normal 1,040 flights a day. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) claims that even some management pilots who had crossed the picket lines over the weekend had changed their minds and left the cockpits. On Monday, Eastern announced that it had virtually shut down operations, except for its Boston-New York-Washington shuttle and three round-trip flights a week from Miami to South America. The carrier also laid off more than 5,000 non-union employees.

Eastern also asked a federal judge to issue a court order forcing pilots back to work. Hearings were set to begin yesterday.

The second target of the IAM is Continental Airlines, Eastern's sister carrier under parent company Texas Air Corporation. Now an almost entirely non-union airline, Continental represents the future that airline unions fear most.

Both IAM and ALPA officials say they have some leverage against Continental, even if they officially have no members there, because Continental pilots and machinists would be reluctant to cross picket lines - or even to help Continental take up the slack from canceled Eastern flights.

``We're getting reports from inside Continental that pilots are getting extremely nervous about taking over any Eastern flights,'' says Ron Cole, an ALPA spokesman. But Continental spokesman Art Kent played down the threat. ``It's not our strike. It's Eastern's strike. We don't have any unions at Continental.''

Neither ALPA nor the IAM has begun picketing Continental yet. They await a decision from the National Mediation Board on whether Texas Air can be picketed as a single carrier - making Continental fair game - or whether Eastern stands alone. That decision is probably several days or weeks away.

The second front of organized labor's campaign is political. And here, unions have failed so far to have an impact.

Before the strike, labor leaders warned that they would encourage sympathy strikes in other transportation industries unless a federal government panel was appointed to look into the situation and mediate or, ultimately, force a contract settlement at Eastern.

But last week President Bush declined to appoint such a panel. And several airline and rail companies got federal judges to issue temporary restraining orders against such sympathy strikes. These court orders forced the machinists to call off sympathy strikes in the rail industry.

Thus, labor has had to delay the pressure it hoped to bring on the President and Congress.

But unions have other weapons at their disposal. For example, ALPA officials asked its members at other airlines to begin work-to-rule slowdowns at other airlines, in an attempt to delay flights nationwide.

``We told the entire nation what was going to happen before this strike ever evolved,'' says IAM spokesman Jim Conley. ``It's up to Congress and the President to ensure this doesn't happen.''

Spreading strikes and slowdowns to other airlines and the railroads is a high-risk gamble, labor experts say.

Not only has Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner warned he will take immediate action to outlaw sympathy strikes, but unions run the danger of angering the public because of transportation delays.

``Eastern looks like the bad guy and they [labor leaders] want to keep it that way,'' says Richard Hurd, an economics professor at the University of New Hampshire at Durham. ``Their plan is to hurt Continental and that makes a lot more sense to me.''

The cooperation between the machinists and the pilots is unprecedented, union officials say.

``The pilots have gotten a whiff of their potential power,'' says one airline management source who requested anonymity. ``This could be a springboard for militant actions at other airlines.''

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