THE Eastern strike - however it ends - is being viewed as a watershed and possible revival in American unionism, which has been slipping and sliding for a decade. At the center of the strike is the president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 100, Charles Bryan.
Under the militant Mr. Bryan, measured in manner but mostly unmovable, Eastern's machinists have broken new ground for American industrial unions in the past decade. They have reached historic agreements for sharing decisionmaking power with management, and they have set a union standard for sophistication and shrewdness, according to labor experts.
They have also stood their ground with a bulldog toughness that aroused bitter resentment not only among Eastern managers but among fellow employees.
At stake now is something beyond Eastern's future. If Eastern machinists and the pilots that decisively supported them in their strike lose their jobs, unions will still view the strike as a victory if it succeeds in repudiating the union-gutting management style represented by Frank Lorenzo, chairman of Eastern's parent company, Texas Air.
``It would be a victory for the labor movement at an enormous cost to individual workers,'' says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business and University of California at Berkeley.
Bryan himself has called the battle at Eastern a watershed for organized labor for years now. ``If we can't maintain what's right and what is so obviously right,'' he says, ``then the labor movement is going to be seriously damaged.''
Many independent labor watchers agree. Craig Zabala, a management professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., says: ``If they lose, then the labor movement in general loses, and they've already lost big in the 1980s.''
In personal terms, Eastern has pitted two extremes in modern labor relations against each other. The assertive Bryan has been willing repeatedly to bring the company to its knees. Mr. Lorenzo represents the modern corporate manager who prefers to circumvent organized labor rather than co-opt it with participation and responsibility.
Unions have largely succeeded in portraying Lorenzo as the greedy, financial chess player in this battle. Eastern management has portrayed Bryan as irresponsible and unreasoning. But he remains highly popular with his union members.
Eastern's former chief executive officer, Frank Borman, found Bryan to be his nemesis. Mr. Borman governed Eastern with a strong, military-style hand for 11 years. In his recent autobiography, he accuses Bryan of aspiring to run the company himself and blames him for forcing the sale of Eastern to Lorenzo in 1986.
So does an airline industry source: ``Yes, I lay it at the feet of Charlie Bryan to some extent.''
Borman writes of Bryan as at times ``absolutely irrational, apparently willing to see Eastern go down the drain rather than give in.''
Bryan accepts no more of the blame for the sale to Lorenzo than he does for Eastern's bankruptcy filing last week. Lorenzo, he says, ``was going to bankrupt it one way or another.'' In striking, he adds, ``We decided it was time to make our stand and let people make their judgments.''
Bryan lurched to national attention and the leading edge of sophisticated unionism in 1983 with a contract that brought Eastern employees 25 percent ownership of the company, four seats on the board of directors, extensive review of company business decisions, and wage increases tied to productivity.
Up to that point, Bryan had been distinguished mainly for his toughness and militancy. A college dropout from West Virginia, he started at Eastern in 1956 as a mechanic. He worked up the local union ranks during the 1970s and was elected president of IAM's Local 100 in 1980.
In 1983, Bryan extracted a 32.2 percent pay increase over 30 months after the pilots' union already agreed to pay concessions.
LATER that year, with Eastern once again in financial distress, the unions were given a look at the company books, then proposed trading wage concessions for stock ownership in the company and various power-sharing mechanisms. For a time, it worked.
The effect transformed the labor relations at Eastern, according to Joseph Blasi, a labor relations professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and co-author of a study of Eastern's labor relations for the US Department of Transportation.
Dr. Blasi documented substantial increases in productivity. ``It was really remarkable. ... The most militant antimanagement people became, the most entreprenerial team players,'' he says.
Bryan's view was - and still is - that workers can be responsible partners in managing the company.
The labor harmony gradually unraveled. Bryan is not sure why. Blasi says Borman was never personally comfortable with power sharing. An airline industry source says that productivity gains were always debatable, that the unions never really let go of obsolete work rules left over from before deregulation.
Lorenzo ended whatever remained of power sharing. Bryan no longer has ready access to the executive offices at Eastern, and Lorenzo does not deal with him directly.
Now, the machinists hope to emerge from this strike with either full employee ownership of Eastern or part ownership with a financial partner.
The experience of those years between 1983 and 1986, says Blasi, ``does strongly suggest that an employee takeover or an employee buyout would work.''
Dr. Zabala believes, in fact, that Eastern's best chance of survival is under employee ownership. ``The pilots and the machinists are showing unionists how to look at business, which is as a business,'' he says.
Bryan, says Notre Dame economist Charles Craypo, ``is not a reckless militant. ... Either through experience or through intuition, he seems to have his feet firmly planted in the reality of how corporate decisions are made.''