Railroad labor unions are growing concerned that the possible strike at Eastern Air Lines could cost them their most-treasured weapon: the threat of a secondary boycott if a railroad attempts to operate during a strike.
The Supreme Court has upheld the right of unions covered by the Railway Labor Act to conduct secondary boycotts, and Congress has thus far resisted drives by the railroads to get the act modified. The RLA covers airline workers as well as railroad employees.Continuing labor-management strife at Eastern seems to be leading to a strike by the company's 9,000 members of the International Association of Machinists in early March. An impasse has been declared by the National Mediation Board, and a cooling-off period ends March 3.
The machinists have been working without a contract for 15 months, and the carrier last week rejected an offer from the mediation board to enter into
binding arbitration with the union to resolve the impasse.
Several aviation analysts have predicted that a machinists' strike at Eastern may foster secondary boycotts quickly if other unions fail to honor the picket lines or if the strike does not have sufficient impact to force a settlement.
Eastern is a subsidiary of Texas Air Corp., which also owns Continental Airlines and several small carriers. Texas Air's chairman, Frank Lorenzo, has been locked in fierce battle with his unions for years.
The IAM represents mechanics, ground crews and baggage handlers at Eastern. Under the law, airline employees have the right to conduct secondary boycotts, which are barred in nearly all other industries. This means the union could strike other airlines that might, for instance, lease Eastern's planes to serve what are normally Eastern's routes or might put their own planes on routes they don't normally serve.
Railroad unions rest somewhat easy under the same law, during these troubled economic times in their industry, knowing they possess the right to conduct secondary boycotts if they are faced with a critical showdown with the carriers.
Historically, railroads have avoided taking a strike because a secondary boycott shutting down much of the industry would bring a presidential declaration of emergency and eventual legislation ending a strike.
One rail insider called the secondary boycott the equivalent of nuclear war. "You only get to use it once, but it sure is nice to have it in the arsenal. . . . ."
The unions have resisted calls to use the secondary boycott in a few recent regional disputes for fear that Congress will modify their right to use it if they invoke it, and will almost certainly do so if they use it frivolously.
That Congress might take secondary boycotting away because of a dispute in the aviation industry has rail union executives furiously searching for a way out.
"We're hoping it never happens," said one union official. "Nobody's come up with a good strategy yet."
Eastern has been demanding pay cuts of up to 50 percent for some workers on the financially ailing carrier, while the union has countered with a proposal for a one-year freeze on wage hikes and small increases in the second and third years of a new contract.
When Eastern rejected the mediation board's offer, a mandated 30-day cooling-off period began. When it ends, the parties are free to act, barring intervention by the federal government.
Rail unions won the uncontested right to conduct secondary boycotts as the result of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in early 1987 that grew out of a strike by maintenance-of-way workers at Guilford Transportation Industries Inc., another company that has developed a reputation for poor labor relations.
The court ruled that, under the law governing railroads and airlines, federal courts had no right to prevent the rail unions from setting up picket lines at railroads that connect with a struck carrier.
The Reagan administration on several occasions tried to convince Congress to modify federal law to prohibit secondary boycotts, but the legislators refused.
Rail insiders said they would not be surprised to see the new Bush administration attempt to end secondary boycotts, since the railroads have continued to treat the demise of the boycott threat as a major priority.