Eastern Airlines endured the fifth day of its machinists strike Wednesday with a major court defeat that keeps its pilots out of its planes, just a skeleton staff, and, the carrier says, only a few days before its collapse.
The pilots' union said its members at other airlines would follow all safety rules to the letter again, at whatever cost in service delays. The clearest effect on travel, however, was at Eastern, which was forced to lay off 9,500 employees this week and ground most flights because of pilots' support of the strike by the 8,500-member machinists union.On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Edward B. Davis denied Eastern's request for a temporary injunction forcing the airline's 3,600 pilots to return to work, despite warnings from Eastern's attorney that the company faced imminent bankruptcy proceedings unless the pilots returned.
The airline flew just 57 flights of its Northeast shuttle on Tuesday, and 41 flights were used to return stranded planes to home bases from South America and other points, Eastern spokesman Jim Ashlock said Wednesday. Before the strike, Eastern had more than 1,000 flights daily.
Eastern has only 1,500 employees of a pre-strike work force of 31,200 still working. It was filing an appeal with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
Eastern spokesman Robin Matell said the option to file for protection from creditors under federal bankruptcy laws remains "a course of last resort." However, some union leaders have contended that Frank Lorenzo, chairman of Eastern owner Texas Air Corp., has planned all along to tear the carrier apart.
"Mr. Lorenzo has obviously not got the trust and confidence of his company," U.S. Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner said Wednesday on CBS' "This Morning."
"Congress and the president can't get involved. You don't create a working relationship between a company and its employees by congressional act," Skinner said.
The pilots union reported that Eastern management called its negotiators Tuesday night to set up talks for their contract, which expired in June 1988. Union spokesman J.B. Stokes said that the contact "was just a phone conversation, a contact. We're officially supposed to meet March 9."
The ruling in Miami against Eastern, is "a victory for labor in general," Eastern pilots' leader Jack Bavis told a raucous rally of nearly 3,000 striking employees gathered Tuesday night in Miami for a teleconference beamed by satellite to 11 other groups across the country.
"All of us or none of us!" chanted the crowd of strikers who jammed Miami's Knight Center.
Earlier, about 200 non-union workers, most of them among those laid off this week, demonstrated on company property across from pickets, shouting "We want our pilots back!"
About 60 percent of the 40,000-member Air Line Pilots Association on Tuesday followed its request that rule books be stringently observed, said Capt. Roger Hall, a union spokesman.
There were minor delays in arrivals at La Guardia Airport in New York Wednesday that might have been caused by a pilots' slowdown, said Allen Morrison, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But no major delays were reported at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
President Bush, meanwhile, refused to budge from his opposition to government intervention to halt the walkout.
A House panel, however, approved a bill that would compel Bush to appoint a board to study the 17-month contract dispute and issue a recommendation. The action would include a cooling-off period of up to 60 days in which striking employees would return to work.
Bush told reporters Tuesday the strike at Eastern, the nation's seventh-largest airline, should be settled through bargaining. And the president said if the Machinists try to shut down rail service later this week, he will ask Congress to ban such secondary boycotts.
Secondary boycotts, particularly in the New York metropolitan area, could disrupt commutes for hundreds of thousands of people.