PRESIDENT Clinton's dramatic personal intervention to settle the American Airlines strike was well-timed, not just to rescue the Thanksgiving plans of travelers, but to mend his battered fences with the labor movement.
Labor took a real beating in the press during the NAFTA debate. Unions were depicted as protectionist, reactionary, anti-Mexican and worse. The Clinton White House, which counts heavily on labor to raise money, rally voters and lobby congressmen, joined in the chorus of labor bashing.
However, the largely sympathetic press and television portrait of flight attendants' grievances presented a very different labor movement. The American strike reminds us that labor is more than a bunch of cigar-chompers looking for a feather bed. For the most part, the labor movement is made up of ordinary working people seeking a measure of dignity on the job.
American's flight attendants, mostly women, complained of being treated like children -- supervisors constantly questioning the length of their earrings, the cut of their hair and extending their hours and reducing the size of flight crews. When nerves frazzled, supervisors sent them off to watch videotapes on sensitivity to customers. "This strike was mainly about respect," the flight attendants kept saying.
The strike was also about pocketbook vulnerability. As deregulation has cut into airline earnings, the carriers have collectively lost $10 billion over the past three years. In response, they have outdone each other to cut labor costs, often brutally.
The average flight attendant earns about $20,000 a year, but must spend long hours of unpaid time on layovers between flights. American chairman Robert Crandall proposed new work rules to cut further into flight attendant pay. Mr. Crandall wanted attendants to sit home one month out of four, at reduced pay, on "reserve" to take assignments as the company needed them -- or to sit idle if the company didn't need them.
American wanted attendants to clean up after flights, so it could lay off cabin cleaners. American also wanted to reduce health benefits, and to give early retirement to attendants with long seniority and relatively higher pay.
Like many companies, American has a "two-tier" salary structure. New hires earn about $14,000, substantially less than experienced workers. In many industries, the result of such pay differentials is simply that older workers are unceremoniously dumped and replaced with cheaper, younger ones.
But at American, management can't just fire older workers at its pleasure, thanks to the union. And, as the strike demonstrated, the union's power to threaten economic damage at least mitigates the more extreme forms of arbitrary treatment.
As more and more Americans find themselves at economic risk, millions of travelers, TV viewers and newspaper readers must have concluded from the feisty flight attendants that a union might not be a bad thing to have around.
This is not to say, of course, that organized labor can or should prevent necessary economic adjustments. In the new economic climate, the airlines, like other industries, will have to find ways of operating more efficiently.
But the presence of a union at least provides some hope that not all of the adjustment costs will be borne by ordinary wage earners. Collectively, unions also function as constituencies that support labor-adjustment policies nationally.
For example, President Clinton says he wants strategies of economic security to enable ordinary people to accept the risks of necessary change. He envisions a set of training, retraining and re-employment policies, of the sort the labor movement has long advocated. These measures will be hard to get through Congress, and without a labor movement urging their enactment it would be even more difficult.
Mr. Clinton has also appointed a commission on labor law reform, headed by the dean of American labor scholars and mediators, former labor secretary John Dunlop. The Dunlop Commission is looking into ways of empowering workers in union and non-union companies alike, and also into ways of improving the climate for union organizing.
Some advocates of a new workplace contend that the business-school gospel of work quality discussion groups, co-determination, and employee empowerment reduces the need for traditional trade unions. But the American strike suggests otherwise.
We do need new models of the workplace, but we also need unions to assure that management won't arbitrarily rescind them. Indeed, the mass layoffs and downsizings in rust-belt and high-tech industries alike indicate that "new workplace" compacts are only as reliable as the last quarterly profit and the chief executive's mood.
A union cannot squeeze blood from a stone. But it can compel sacrifices to be shared more equally. It can resist extremes of arbitrary treatment. And it can force management to look harder for solutions that serve the interests of both company and employee.
In the NAFTA debate, unions were often depicted as dinosaurs. The conflict at American Airlines reminds us that it is industry, more often, that behaves like the behemoths of Jurassic Park. And it is encouraging to see Mr. Clinton and labor back on the same side.
Robert Kuttner writes a column on economic matters.