This Is Your Captain Speaking


Politically speaking, President Clinton appears to have made a perfect three-point landing in getting American Airlines Chairman Robert Crandall to agree to go to arbitration to settle the strike by flight attendants.

This is just what the president needed after the turbulence of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Organized labor may never forget the way the president rammed that proposal through Congress over its objections, but it has to be mollified somewhat by the way he handled the flight attendants' strike. Arbitration is not what Mr. Crandall would have preferred. It is exactly what the flight attendants wanted.

The strike was well-timed by the flight attendants, coming on the eve of a busy holiday. It was costing American $10 million to $20 million a day, hurting its reputation with the flying public, and, perhaps most important of all, turning some travel agents against it by misleading them on its ability to meet schedules. Furthermore, there was the potential of an "Anita Hill problem" (charges of sexism) for the airline, since the flight attendants are pTC mostly women. Mr. Crandall may have agreed to arbitration in another few days even without a telephone call from President Clinton.

Nevertheless, that phone call to Mr. Crandall certainly speeded up the decision, if it didn't tip the scales. The president also made a personal call to the president of the union, Denise Hedges. The different for-the-record reactions to those calls by the recipients will certainly help the president politically.

Mr. Crandall said that he agreed to arbitration now because, "In view of [the president's] national responsibilities, we think his requests are entitled to great deference." And "I was leaned on." As for Ms. Hedges, she praised the president's intervention as "thoughtful and timely" -- to a crowd of flight attendants chanting, "Thank you, Bill!"

The symbolism of a president of the United States settling this dispute this way has a special resonance with organized labor. The last time there was such a strike in the airline industry (Eastern machinists), President George Bush refused to get involved, despite a plea from federal mediators and the AFL-CIO. In the previous airline strike, Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. So while organized labor may never forget NAFTA, it will probably forgive, especially if President Clinton is as helpful in other disputes in the future, and even more especially if he runs against a Republican in 1996 who is presumed to be true to the Reagan-Bush tradition.

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