On May 29, 197 of Trans World Airlines' most senior flight attendants reported to an out-of-the-way hangar at Kennedy International Airport to get their jobs back. In a sense they were the lucky ones: Of 4,500 men and women who had been on strike against TWA for more than two months, these 197 were the only ones who would be returning.
But going back wasn't easy. Anger, economic loss and a feeling of betrayal all followed the returning workers, along with a sense that they were coming back to a world fundamentally different from the one they had left on March 7.
"I had a lot of doubts, a lot of anger, a lot of hesitation about going back," said Eugene de Figueireodo, who has nearly 29 years of service with the airline and whose wife, also a flight attendant, is a member of the union bargaining committee. "Going back was very difficult and, in fact, I didn't want to.
"I had taken the bus to work and had just gotten off. I had my luggage," he said. "All of a sudden, this huge crowd of picketers was clapping and cheering those of us who were returning. . . . As each one of us entered the premises, we were each in tears," said de Figueireodo.
"Some of the older ladies -- in the past we had had battles over seniority. But I felt as if that were all in the past, and I felt like it was a family. Even I, as a man, aged 55, was crying," he said.
The cheers buoyed up the returning strikers, but only temporarily. For these flight attendants with decades of service, who lived through the long, slow struggle for more job security and better pay and working conditions, returning to an airline where some of the gains were being reversed was bitter.
"It was awful," said Elizabeth Conlon, another member of the group that returned to work, walking past the informational pickets posted to remind the public that -- although the strike is over -- the union's battle is not.
"I'm fairly junior in the group, if you can call it that. I'm flying 25 years," Conlon said. "When we entered the hangar to be rehired, I guess what struck me was the other women, the older women," she said, her voice breaking, as she talked of the women who have worked even longer than she has for better pay and benefits. "I came home and cried for over an hour. For me it's very hard, knowing that we're not asking for very much. We were just asking for a fair wage."
The 6,000-member Independent Federation of Flight Attendants struck TWA on March 7. The union had offered the airline and its new owner, financier Carl Icahn, what it described as a 15 percent wage cut and other concessions, but Icahn said he needed more.
Icahn, who ended up with the financially troubled airline almost accidentally in an acquisition gone awry, had won concessions from the pilots and machinists unions whose members continued to work during the flight attendants' strike, although many of the machinists initially honored the picket lines. TWA got a court to order the International Association of Machinists to cross the flight attendants' picket lines.
The public crossed the picket lines, too. So did 1,400 of the union's own members, along with young men and women looking for jobs, apparently undeterred by the sight of flight attendants whose jobs they were taking. In that respect, what happened to the flight attendants reflects increasing difficulties for unions nationwide.
The social restraints that once kept people from crossing picket lines are less in evidence today, said Bill Bywater, president of the International Union of Electrical Workers. "You can have a fellow or a gal who might really like to be a good trade unionist, but they've been up against it so long, they're desperate. And there are some people who just don't give a damn about anybody. [They say] 'To hell with you, I'm looking out for myself.' It's a sign of the times."
While the flight attendants were on strike, Icahn unilaterally imposed his contract proposal. Although the union voted to cancel the strike, it has not agreed to Icahn's terms. There are no negotiations, but the union's battle is continuing, with a hearing scheduled for June 30 in U.S. District Court in Kansas City on the union's charges that TWA engaged in bad-faith bargaining and with complaints pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the company is guilty of sex and age discrimination.
Among other things, the union contends that Icahn asked larger concessions of the flight attendants than of the other unions because the majority of the flight attendants union is female.
With the hiring of 2,800 new workers, which the union hopes will be undone by its lawsuit, the company has achieved the lower labor costs it sought. The average new hire, working the same 75-hour month, now makes $19,500, compared with the $35,000 salary for a flight attendant with 12 years' seniority, the average before the strike. The returning flight attendants also are working for less under the new terms implemented by TWA, earning about $26,700 a year now.
Despite the difficulty of the union's situation and the losses for individual flight attendants, returning flight attendants said that the union did what it had to do. "We knew why we were striking. We knew the reason and, truly, they had a mandate from us," Conlon said. "I still think we would do it the same again, as tough as it is, and -- God, we have to win in court. We have to. Because it truly is breaking the union."
Going back to work for these returning flight attendants has not been going back to the TWA they once knew, they said.
Because they were rehired too late to get a schedule of flights for June, they are on call for this month, and work rule changes mean more hours flying with fewer hours of rest in between, many of them say.
Pat McGrath, a flight attendant with nearly 28 years of service, checks in at 10 a.m. and at 10 p.m. to determine if she is needed. If she is and gets a call, she has two hours to report to Kennedy from her home in New Jersey, she said. "I have my suitcase in the car, and the keys in the ignition," she said. "I keep my makeup on, and when I get the call, hopefully, I will make it to Kennedy."
It is hard, she said, "but I knew they wouldn't be sending us thank-you notes."
Returning flight attendants also have found it difficult at times to deal with the young new hires and with old friends who crossed the picket lines, but the difficulties are reflected only in a certain coolness of manner, they said. On the job, they say, they do what they must to get the job done professionally.
"I'm not there to cause dissension," said Linda L. Matto, a flight attendant who has worked for TWA for 34 years. "I sort of have compassion for all of us -- even those who crossed." Although she retains her anger at what they did, the new hires have been pleasant and are working hard at their jobs, she said. "I notice that a few of them are beginning to tire. They sort of giggle and say, 'Oh, gosh, another trip tomorrow.' Maybe the dawn is approaching." In time, they may understand what the flight attendants' struggle was about, she said.
A flight attendant who had been close to de Figueireodo's wife approached him and "started crying," said de Figueireodo. "He started explaining to me why he had to cross over, how he was afraid that he would lose everything in his life, and he said he felt so sorry about what he was doing. He asked me how he could approach my wife and explain to her, and I said I didn't know how."
"As much anger as I had, I embraced him and said that I forgave him," he said.
While the flight attendants who have returned to work grapple with the discomfort of their situation and while other, still-jobless flight attendants pursue their legal remedies and a boycott of TWA, the airline seems relatively untouched.
"If you look at their labor costs, it's done them a lot of good," said Edward Starkman, an airline research assistant for Paine Webber. "It was a long-run must. You have to say they came out ahead on it."
"It's ludicrous to be out on strike because you're not willing to give back more than $76 million in concessions," said McGrath, between flights at her home in New Jersey. "What is enough? I'd like to know what is enough? People will come up and say, 'What are you asking for?' We were just trying to hang on to what we have."