Airline's workers reach for controls

Continental Air Lines employees have voted 8,982 to 359 to purchase 51 percent of the outstanding stock of the 34-year-old carrier and, they say, "control of our own destiny."

Their Continental Employees Association has bank commitments for the $185 million needed to buy 15.4 million new shares of airline stock under a proposed Employee Stock Ownership Plan. According to Paul Eckel, chairman of the employee group, the necessary money "is oversubscribed. We've done it and we are proud! We have put our money where our pride is."

If they can, Continental would become the country's first employee-owned airline. However, there are a number of companies in other industries that are worker-owned. Most employee takeovers have resulted from efforts to salvage jobs in companies threatened by serious financial troubles.

Continental's 10,400 employees, represented by four unions, have a somewhat similar motivation. The airline, which provides service to 34 US cities, mostly in the West, Midwest, and South, lost $20.7 million in 1980, its second consecutive year of deficits. The company's revenues last year totaled $992 million. Its setbacks are generally laid to problems of adjusting to airline deregulation in 1978.

Its financial position makes Continental vulnerable to takeover bids. Texas International Airlines has accumulated about 48.5 percent of Continental's stock. It envisions a merger that would link routes of the carriers, benefiting both. Continental employees fear a Texas International takeover would result in layoffs without regard to seniority.

"If Texas Airlines takes over, there may be no Continental at all," says Thomas Suchan, a Continental ticket agent in Newark, N.J. Mr. Suchan attended a founding meeting of the Continental Employees Association in Denver, and he says there was "vast majority support" for employee ownership.

In order to buy a majority interest, they will contribute maximum of 15 percent of their salaries and forgo pay increases through 1984 to pay off loans for the stock purchase.

Continental's present financial situation does not worry employees. In national newspaper advertising seeking shareholder support, the employees predict that the airline can become the "most efficient anywhere" as a result of the infusion of new capital, employee incentives to improve productivity, and a pledged willingness "to work harder and smarter."

Texas International filed suit in federal court to block the issuance of stock necessary for the employee purchase. It charges that Continental's management "assisted and participated in the organization" of the Continental Employees Association in an "entrenchment scheme" to preserve "the benefits or their offices by placing a control block of Continental shares in friendly hands."

Continental's president, Alvin L. Feldman, denies the charges but says that he personally prefers the employee purchase.

The Texas International merger and employee purchase plan will be submitted to Continental's board, which will choose betw een them or reject both.

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