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Machinists, Families Make Preparations For Possible Strike

February 26, 1989

MIAMI (AP) _ Machinists and their families battened down the hatches and strike preparations swung into full gear as a 16-month contract dispute with money- losing Eastern Airlines went down to the wire.

Some held out hope for a last-minute settlement that would avert a strike when a 30-day cooling-off period expires at midnight Friday. The walkout also could be delayed for 60 days, if President Bush follows a recommendation from the National Mediation Board that he declare a presidential emergency.

Employees were uncertain what the future holds.

″I’m not really drowning in fear of what’s going to happen March 4,″ said Ted Ramirez, a 25-year Eastern employee. ″I still have total faith in (Machinists leader) Charlie Bryan. I think he’ll pull us out″ before a strike.

Last-ditch mediation began last week in Washington to resolve differences between management and the 8,500-member union. The airline is seeking $150 million in wage concessions; the Machinists want raises totaling $50 million.

Eastern has vowed to continue operating in the event of a strike. The company contends its survival is at stake as it seeks wage concessions from its largest union, which represents mechanics, baggage handlers and other ground-services workers.

Unless there is a settlement or Bush takes action, the company will be free to impose its terms on workers after the cooling-off period ends Friday. Presidential spokesman B. Jay Cooper, accompanying Bush on his trip to the Far East, said the president will consult with the labor, transportation and justice departments before deciding whether to block the strike.

Machinists, who overwhelmingly voted to support a strike sanction, have been bolstered by backing from the AFL-CIO and say they’re ready for a strike, if that happens.

″I’m not looking forward to it. However, it’s something that has got to be done,″ said Tom Minick, an eight-year Eastern veteran.

The labor turmoil has led many machinists’ families to keep a tight rein on their finances and shore up their savings. But many worry about making it through a strike if it lasts more than a few months.

″We considered buying a car. We’re not. We considered home improvements. We’re not. Everything’s on hold,″ said Marti Kirsch, wife of 23-year Eastern avionics mechanic Charlie Kirsch. ″It has been constant stress and turmoil.″ Management-labor relations at Eastern, which have been tense for years, worsened since Texas Air Corp. took over 2 1/2 years ago.

Machinists blame the Miami-based carrier’s financial straits - losses of about $1 million a day and estimated losses of $335.4 million for 1988 - on mismanagement and say the airline just wants to get rid of the unions.

″If (Texas Air chairman Frank) Lorenzo would drop out of the picture and take his henchmen ... and put somebody from the airline industry to run this airline, we’d start making money tomorrow,″ Ramirez said.

Ramirez, part of a joint union-company team created in 1983 to find ways to save money for the company, said Eastern is simply not interested in cutting costs.

Eastern spokeswoman Karen Ceremsak said the program has been effectively put on hold because of the contract dispute and disagreement between the union and management on what is a legitimate cost-saving idea.

″It’s great in theory but not enough to put the company on sound financial footing,″ Ms. Ceremsak said.

Machinists are also quick to point out that non-union sister Continental Airlines has minimal labor costs and yet still loses money.

Charlie Kirsch said he believes the outcome at Eastern could set a precedent for the rest of the airline industry.

″The ramifications are so immense, no can really look into the future and see what the airline industry will be like five years from now,″ he said.

Meanwhile, Kirsch says that at 52 and with nearly 24 years under his belt at Eastern, he doesn’t relish the prospect of having to start over if the carrier collapses.

″Hopefully, it will never come to that,″ he said.

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