NO matter what happens to Eastern Airlines now, the image of the man who engineered its fate is unlikely to change. Shrewd. Ruthless. Loyal. Wheeler-dealer. Frank Lorenzo inspires deep emotions as diverse and contradictory as the jumbled fleet of airplanes he has cobbled together.
At press time, Eastern Airlines was expected to declare bankruptcy for reorganization. The bankruptcy at Eastern would merely intensify the emotions that Mr. Lorenzo has generated over the years.
For organized labor, the view of Lorenzo is quite simple. He has broken all the rules.
In 1983, he used bankruptcy laws to outsmart and outmaneuver the unions at Continental Airlines. He aggressively hired strikebreakers. Continental became nonunion and labor was put on notice: This was a new breed of union buster. When Lorenzo took over Eastern in 1986, labor expected more of the same - and got it. After 17 months of bargaining over a new contract with the International Association of Machinists, Eastern management hardly changed its position at all.
To avoid another Continental-like defeat, organized labor has mounted a pointed and very personal counterattack, targeting not Eastern, but Lorenzo himself. At last month's AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting, trade unionists sported buttons with the universal red-slash symbol that is used to say ``No Parking'' or ``No Smoking.'' But instead of a cigarette, these buttons slashed out the name ``Lorenzo.''
A very different image of the man emerges among his employees.
Not even ardent supporters would describe Francisco Anthony Lorenzo, the son of a Spanish-born hairdresser in Queens, N.Y., as a warm man. Former Continental officials who left on good terms refused to have their names used for fear of how Lorenzo might react. But he is fair, they contend.
``I found Frank one of the most fair people I have ever worked for,'' one former Continental manager says. ``He expected you to do your job. And he expected you to do it well. If you messed up, the best thing to do with Frank was to fess up.''
EMPLOYEES past and present describe an exhilarating, if sometimes exhausting, esprit de corps at Continental.
``There was a lot of excitement because we were doing something that hadn't been done before,'' the former manager says.
Adds Continental pilot David Kraner: On the outside, ``there's this feeling that we are the poor downtrodden workers. But I am so happy to have a job at Continental.''
If there are two images of Lorenzo that come up again and again, it is that of the chess player and the marathon runner. Continental employees, airline analysts, and even opponents describe him as shrewd and always prepared with alternate plans.
But for all his acknowledged shrewdness, Lorenzo's mode of operation seems remarkably consistent over the years.
Like the marathon runner he is, Lorenzo sets a goal and then accomplishes it with incredible tenacity.
Starting with Texas Air International, he has assembled a number of troubled airlines into a complicated corporate structure, moved around assets, and confronted workers with tough either-or choices. He has taken strikes by union mechanics at Texas Air, Continental, and now Eastern and won in the first two cases.
``The tactics of Mr. Lorenzo [at Continental] are almost a carbon copy of what's going going on at Eastern right now,'' says a former union pilot at Continental. And that is dangerous at a personal level, he adds, because the flip side of Lorenzo's success has been the personal woes of those he's defeated.
The former Continental pilot says he knows of two suicides and at least 15 divorces that occurred as a direct result of the strife at Continental.
``I don't want history to repeat itself,'' he says.