WASHINGTON -- Maybe, as the White House is saying, President Clinton wasn't taking a first step toward getting back in the good graces of organized labor with his decision to intervene in the flight attendants' strike against American Airlines, and his success in getting both sides to agree to binding arbitration.
But because going to arbitration was a goal of the union that had been rebuffed by the airline, the outcome is being seen widely as a labor victory even before the arbitration begins.
And that isn't likely to hurt the president as he sets about mending labor fences in the wake of his victory on the North American Free Trade Agreement, bitterly opposed by organized labor.
At the still-smarting AFL-CIO, Clinton's success in moving the strike into arbitration is seen as more of a shortcut and a way of getting the airline's previously unmovable chairman, Robert L. Crandall, off the hook in a strike that was proving disastrous for his company.
According to Rex Hardesty, the AFL-CIO spokesman, the strike was heading eventually to mandatory arbitration anyway under the president's transportation emergency powers.
So the AFL-CIO is not ready to send Clinton roses and a let's-make-up note for his intervention in a strike involving a union not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
Still, it was not a bad way to demonstrate the White House's desire to start patching up relations with organized labor. It was a reminder, intentional or not, that after the 12 contentious Reagan-Bush years labor has a sympathetic friend in the Oval Office.
Well before the NAFTA debate heated up, Clinton in August had already sent that message with his order to lift the ban on air traffic controllers fired by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), had staged a walkout in defiance of federal law, and Reagan's order in effect killed the union. The action became a symbol of the disaffection of organized labor's leadership from him, if not of many of its rank-and-file, which still voted for him.
Clinton said in lifting the ban that while his administration did not "condone illegal job actions in the federal government, reasonable people would agree that after 12 years former air traffic controllers should be able to apply for employment." The order was regarded as largely symbolic itself, because most of the 11,400 striking PATCO members had gone into other employment. Also, the Federal Aviation Administration had instituted a freeze on hiring after it said sufficient replacements were found to run the air traffic system.
Because the PATCO firings were such a sore point with organized labor generally, Clinton's move was welcomed in union halls. An organization called PATCO Lives still functions for 5,200 former air controllers who have reapplied for jobs once the freeze is lifted, at which time only about 200 jobs a year are expected to be filled.
l Clinton's intervention in the American strike, while not unprecedented, was certainly unusual. And although the White House insisted for appearances' sake that the president only "facilitated" the agreement to go to arbitration, it was clear from Crandall's remarks that he was given a Mafia choice -- an offer he couldn't refuse, unless he wanted to invite even greater criticism for ensnarling air traffic over the super-busy Thanksgiving weekend.
Although the decision to step in had nothing to do with NAFTA in itself, winning congressional approval of the trade pact had the psychological impact of enhancing Clinton's image of presidential leadership. A defeat on NAFTA, on the other hand, could have been an invitation to Crandall to defy him.
Instead, Clinton mobilized an impressive team effort involving Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena and Secretary of Labor Robert Reich along with key White House staffers to bring the two sides together.
As in the NAFTA fight, the White House demonstrated that it is beginning to learn how the game is played here, with presidential muscle the major ingredient.