EASTERN AIRLINES and its unions may be learning that putting their heads together to solve disputes holds more promise than butting heads. That would be a welcome development. The airline and its three major unions signed an agreement last week designed to reassure all parties - including the public - that labor tensions at Eastern will not be allowed to affect safe operation of the airline.
The talks that yielded the pact grew out of the US Transportation Department's probe into Eastern's parent company, Texas Air Corporation, which also owns Continental Airlines. At issue was whether Texas Air and its two major subsidiaries were financially sound enough to operate airlines safely. The department found no unsafe conditions at Eastern or Continental; but it also noted that labor strife at Eastern had the potential to affect safety.
The new pact is modest. It sets up a Master Safety Committee, with representatives from the unions, the company, and the Federal Aviation Administration. It seeks to protect ``whistleblowers,'' and may lead to changes in some hotly disputed work rules. The unions and Eastern also pledge to cut back their cross fire over safety issues.
The agreement sidesteps the larger, tougher issue of reducing labor costs, a goal of Texas Air chief Frank Lorenzo. His quest to cut labor costs led to the dispute over safety in the first place.
Still, the safety pact represents a significant start toward putting labor-management relations at Eastern on a more constructive footing. If both sides adhere to the pact in good faith, the acrimony that has blocked a solution to the labor-cost issue could be lifted.