Although it was not unexpected, the strike by the machinists' union against Eastern Airlines is a sad situation. There has been a conspicuous amount of stubbornness and lack of good will on both sides. And if the walkout proves as unyielding as 17 months of negotiations have been, the upheaval could result in the demise of the airline.

The company thought it could carry on with supervisory personnel, but since most pilots and flight attendants refused to cross picket lines set up by the striking machinists, ground crews and baggage handlers, the airline was effectively shut down.Presumably, nobody wants to see Eastern go out of business, but the decision to strike seems to have transcended economics and degenerated into a bitter union vs. management struggle. Many strikers acknowledge that the walkout could finish the airline, but are going ahead anyway.

While it is one of the nation's biggest airlines, Eastern has been battered by labor trouble and deregulated competition and is one of the most unprofitable U.S. airlines. The company has lost more than $1 billion in the past decade and claims to be losing $1 million a day.

Owner Frank Lorenzo, whose Texas Air bought struggling Eastern in 1986, wants the union workers to take a $150 million a year pay cut. The union is demanding a $50 million raise, which can't be justified if the airline is losing what it says.

Lorenzo, who has been as stubborn as the unhappy workers, is disliked by many employees for his union-crushing campaign at Continental Airlines in 1983. They accuse him of trying to accomplish the same thing at Eastern.

This does not look like a situation that can be resolved quickly, but President Bush was right in not stepping into the fray and using his emergency powers to order a 60-day cooling-off period. After 17-months of talks, another 60 days will hardly make a difference.

Bush also wisely refused to establish an emergency mediation panel as some had asked. The panel could recommend a settlement, and if Eastern and the union refused to accept it, Congress could enact it into law.

That would be a serious mistake. Other airlines have been hit hard by deregulation, and workers have taken pay cuts or lost jobs. For the president and Congress to intervene in the Eastern case would be unfair.

The real victims in all of this are travelers who are stranded all over the nation and in the Caribbean and Latin America and whose business, vacation and personal travel situations have been thrown into chaos.

Yet the union, with verbal backing of other segments of organized labor, is threatening to picket at other airlines and even ports and train stations, what the Washington Post calls the taking of "as many innocent hostages as possible."

How this could possibly help the union against Eastern is unclear since Eastern is already shut down. What it might do is turn the traveling public against the union for lashing out on all sides against people who are not involved in the dispute, including some who are not even flying.

The strike may be a long one. And no matter how it turns out, there won't be any real winners - only losers on both sides.

The union may be crushed, forced to take pay cuts. Wages lost in the walkout may never be regained. But already-struggling Eastern will be left weaker and perhaps mortally wounded. And if the airline goes under, 31,200 employees could lose their jobs.

Under the circumstances, the walkout makes no sense. This is a strike that should never have happened.