Deregulation spells trouble for nation's unionized laborers

These are troubling times for union chief Victor Herbert. Depending on the outcome of an organizing drive, his union, the Air Line Employees Association (ALEA), will either rebound to near-record membership levels or dwindle to practically nothing.

His plight is a dramatic example of what is sweeping through a large part of the labor movement. Deregulation has not only rattled most transportation and communication companies. It is shaking up the unions in those industries as well.

``It's been utterly devastating,'' the AFL-CIO's John Zalusky says of deregulation, although there are hopeful signs for labor that the worst part of the turmoil is ending.

So far, airline unions have endured the worst shakeout.

The Independent Federation of Flight Attendants, for example, scraped bottom last year when Carl Icahn, the new head of Trans World Airlines (TWA), took a hard line with employees. The union's strike was broken. Almost all its dues-paying members were replaced by nonunion workers. Its coffers were nearly exhausted until a series of successful court battles reestablished the union's dues collection.

Since it represents only TWA workers, the union's future remains cloudy.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association faces a similar problem. Airline mergers have devastated its ranks. Its last bastion - Ozark Air Lines - has merged with TWA. The union is pushing for an election among the newly combined mechanics to decide what union should represent them, but airline sources doubt the union could beat out the much larger International Association of Machinists.

Before deregulation, unions fared well - perhaps too well, some union members concede - because companies gave out wage increases and passed on the added costs to consumers. Deregulation shattered that cozy relationship. New, nonunion companies entered the game, slashing costs and forcing established, unionized firms to cut their own labor costs.

Of course, the new competition was probably inevitable and has reduced air fares, concedes Mr. Herbert at ALEA's headquarters across the street from Chicago's Midway airport. ``The final decision isn't in whether it's good or bad,'' he says about deregulation.

Currently, ALEA is battling the Machinists and the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks (BRAC) to represent 14,500 white-collar ground personnel at newly merged Northwest and Republic Airlines. As the representative of 7,500 Republic workers, ALEA has the biggest bloc of voters, but it suffers from a weak image, says one industry official. Losing at Northwest would leave ALEA with only 150 active employees at tiny Aspen Airways - down from a peak of 16,000 members flying on 18 airlines.

Deregulation in trucking and railroads has had similar impacts on labor. By some estimates, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has only about 160,000 unionized truckers left, less than half the number before deregulation. Railroads have lost 200,000 jobs, adds BRAC head Richard Kilroy.

In some industries, the turmoil from deregulation seems to be ending. ``The major wrenching that took place in the early '80s is over,'' says William Busker, general counsel of the American Trucking Associations.

``It's coming back slowly,'' adds Machinists spokesman Jim Conley. But he sees no great resurgence of unionism.

One airline source says, ``The drive toward lower labor costs continues unabated - and will continue.''

Perhaps because the telephone industry was deregulated more recently, the labor turmoil has been less severe. Although AT&T has announced large layoffs, the Communications Workers of America is working with the company to ease the transition, accomplishing much of it through attrition over the next few years, says George Kohl, the union's special-projects director.

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