What makes a $110,000-a-year airline pilot risk his career for the sake of a $15-an-hour schlepper of baggage? Hate.
It was in the frozen wind at National Airport Tuesday. It was in the pilots' quiet eyes and in their voices when they talked about Frank Lorenzo, tough-guy owner of Eastern Airlines, and how he has stripped the company and humiliated its work force.Four Eastern Boeing 757s sat idle at the gates. Not only were the pilots refusing to cross the International Association of Machinists picket lines, they were donning picket signs themselves, walking the line in sympathy and telling bitter stories about Lorenzo.
How does Lorenzo operate? Last May, for example, he sued all of his pilots as racketeers when they complained that he was cutting corners on safety.
He has wept that his airline is losing money even though a big chunk of its losses is attributable to his own financial maneuverings: He reported a $30 million loss one quarter when he had set aside $30 million to fight an expected strike. He sold Eastern's reservations system to himself, paid Eastern off with a long-term, low-interest bond and now charges Eastern $10 million a month to use the reservation system it once owned.
Lorenzo had good reason to be confident the pilots would fly in spite of the strike by the machinists union, which includes bag handlers and other ground workers. Economically, it makes no sense for these knights of the skies to side with the low-skill, blue-collar baggage handlers. Eastern Airlines pilots wait 20 years to rise to the rank of captain, and once they're there, they're stuck. They're too old to change employers - unless they want to start back at the bottom as flight engineers. They are company men, highly paid lifers.
On the picket line at National Airport Tuesday was Capt. Don Gold, 57, an L-1011 pilot who flies Latin American routes out of Miami.
"Money isn't the issue," Gold said. "I made $111,000 last year on my W-2. But working for Lorenzo is a roller-coaster. You just can't live like this. I decided I had to take a stand, and if I don't fly again, that's that."
Eastern pilots reject Lorenzo's argument that the airline could be profitable if he could only cut the pay of the baggage handlers.
"He says they're making $45,000 a year," snorted L.D. Williams, the first officer. "Well, they make $15 an hour, so figure out how much overtime they have to work to make $45,000. And that's mandatory overtime; if they refuse it, they're fired. It's hypocritical of management to impose mandatory overtime and then complain how much these guys earn."
Up on Capitol Hill, Lorenzo was not getting much sympathy. Ultraconservative Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., derided Lorenzo as an "entrepreneurial figure who pays far more to lawyers than he does to machinists, who pays far more to lobbyists than he does to pilots."
No, not even the conservatives are fond of Lorenzo. He has done the one thing organized labor could not do for itself. He has persuaded the workers to unite.