Charlie Bryan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Mar 8 18:00:44 MST 2001

Anybody's who's seen Oliver Stone's wonderful potboiler "Wall Street"
should recall that Charlie Sheen was a stockbroker/insider trader who
ratted out his mentor and boss, one Gordon Geckko played by Michael
Douglas. Unlike 50's films such as "On the Waterfront", nobody interpreted
this film as a defense of informing. It was just plain old populism, with a
strong subtext that Wall Street was a much better place until the
money-grubbing Jews got a hold of it.

Sheen's father in the film was the president of a airline workers union
about to be downsized through one of Geckko's leveraged buyouts. Although
Geckko was a composite of fellow Bard College alumnus Asher Edelman and
Michael Milken, his behavior with respect to airline workers evoked that of
Frank Lorenzo, Frank Borman and a host of other airline executives in the
early days of airline deregulation. What the film does not capture from
real life, however, is the militancy and class consciousness of some of the
trade union leaders who stood up to the corporate sharks. Thomas
Petzinger's indispensable "Hard Landing", although openly hostile to the
unions, does offer extremely useful background on one of the leaders and
the possibilities that existed for the organized left in this period, if it
was only in touch with reality.

Most people are familiar with the name William Winpisinger, who was the
head of the International Association of Machinists and founder of the
Labor Party, a fitful effort to break with the two-party system.
Winpisinger was a frequent speaker at Socialists Scholars Conference and a
symbol of the trade union movement's flirtation with socialism. Most people
assume that "Winpy" was some kind of eccentric whose views were
out-of-whack with the IAM. As it turns out, there was a fair amount of
ferment in the airline component of this industrial union.

As president of District 100 of the IAM union representing Eastern Airline
workers in the early 80s, Charlie Bryan was in some sense typical of new
moods in organized labor resonant with the Sadlowski campaign in steel or
the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. He grew up in the coal fields of West
Virginia and migrated north where he lived in a shack with his single mom
near a drive-in movie theater in Columbus, Ohio in the 1940s. He had to
shower at a nearby trailer park. He took a mechanic's job with North
American Aviation in 1952 and went to Eastern Airlines in 1956.

A superb worker who often had a better handle on how to do things than
management, he was also respected by fellow workers. He was an
introspective and thoughtful soul who preferred the midnight shift. For
enjoyment, he read mystical literature like Edgar Cayce or Kahlil Gibran.
It *was* the 1960s, comrades.

After Frank Borman, who was a hard-nosed jerk and Type-A personality,
became president of Eastern Airlines, he embarked on an aggressive
cost-cutting campaign. The economics of airlines is really quite simple.
Fuel counts for 20 percent, depending on the state of OPEC, etc. Landing
fees and airport rentals are huge fees and fixed. The cost of borrowing
money is set by the Fed. Travel agency commissions were rising in this
period and would eventually reach 10 percent. But the big ticket item was
labor, as much of 40 percent of the expense of the airline.

Borman excelled at conning workers into believing that the fate of Eastern
Airlines and their own was inseparable. Since he was a "hero" astronaut, he
was able to play this card more effectively than the profane, fanged,
volatile boss of American Airlines Robert Crandall.

Borman presented the Eastern Workers with a contract that tied their wages
to profits. If earnings totaled less than a stipulated level, their pay
could go as low as 96.5 percent of the base. But if the company profited,
they could get 103.5 percent. In essence, Borman would turn the workers
into Eastern's bankers, allowing him to borrow tens of millions of dollars
of unsecured loans.

Bryan would have none of it. He called it a " veritable extortion plan." In
a union newsletter, he wrote "The Gestapo tactics of Martin Ludwig Borman
and his Nazi scorched earth policy will not work with this union
leadership." To make the union's response effective, he drew upon the
expertise of Randy Barber, a 60s radical who worked closely with Jeremy
Rifkin on the People's Bicentennial Commission. Barber had attended
Dartmouth where he said he majored in antiwar activism. After college
Barber wound up as a teacher in Bourges, France where he became fascinated
by the ability of striking watchmakers to continue production without the
need of management. He sold "wildcat" watches to support the strikers.

Using Osborn computers (remember them!), Bryan and Barber discovered that
in the period leading up to the strike Eastern had just 12 days of cash in
the bank. If the machinists mounted an effective strike, Eastern would be
forced to settle on the union's terms. This was what happened. Borman was
forced to accept all of the union's demands. Eventually the tide would turn
against airline workers, but for this brief moment a glimpse of progressive
trade union politics was seen.

Louis Proyect
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