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Next time, airline bosses and passengers will look to the president

February 16, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ The word ``strike″ doesn’t conjure up such scary images to the flying public anymore.

That is the precedent set by President Clinton in ordering American Airlines pilots back to work within minutes after they declared a strike early Saturday, averting chaotic disruptions to hundreds of thousands of passengers.

If pilot negotiations at four other of the nation’s biggest airlines get to the brink of a walkout, airline chiefs and passengers almost certainly will be looking to the White House to keep the planes in the air.

Clinton made a hugely popular decision by effectively removing the one potent negotiating weapon in the American pilot union’s arsenal. There was little obvious sympathy for the pilots in their quest for more compensation, largely because at $120,000 a year they already are among the most highly paid professionals in the country.

But Clinton also sent a signal to all airline workers, particularly pilots, that could severely restrict their bargaining power. Encouraged by the stronger possibility of presidential interventions to prevent strikes, airline bosses now have little incentive to accept union demands.

``I think it has some implications for the industry that aren’t all good,″ said Ron Keever, an American pilot. ``Management can just sit back and let the government step in, instead of negotiating in good faith.″

American pilots haven’t been the only ones trying to squeeze more money out of the U.S. airline industry, which has become healthy and profitable again after years of painful losses.

Pilots at United, Northwest, Continental and USAir also are haggling over new contracts and had been keeping a close watch on the American negotiations.

The United branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, which recently turned down a 10 percent four-year pay increase proposal, warned pilots that if Clinton got in the way of an American Airlines strike, it would weaken their bargaining position.

Pilots at Continental are preparing for contract talks to start this summer and hope to get a piece of the company’s profits after years of enduring lower pay relative to colleagues at other airlines.

All six of the unions at Northwest Airlines are in negotiations and looking for higher pay while the company is asking for increased productivity. At USAir, managers are trying to cut pay. The company recently offered pilots a 12.5 percent pay cut in return for a seven-year contract without layoffs.

Clinton’s decision marked the first time in 30 years that a president declared an airline strike an emergency and ordered the workers back to their jobs. But he did so with the comfort of knowing that not too many union leaders were going to complain about it.

One White House aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, recalled the response from an AFL-CIO official about the possibility of presidential action. ``These aren’t our guys,″ the union rep said of the pilots.

Unlike the Air Line Pilots Association, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, American’s pilots are a splinter union known as the Allied Pilots Association.

The American pilots had even angered some in ALPA _ by far the nation’s biggest airline pilot union _ suggesting ALPA members at American’s turboprop sister airline, American Eagle, weren’t qualified to fly jets.

To some extent, Clinton’s decision to intervene was a special situation that would necessarily apply in future crises. He held in his hands the fate of holiday travel plans for many families traveling with children who got a week break from school. Making matters more ominous, the pilots had indicated repeatedly they were planning to be out for at least 30 days.

His intervention doesn’t automatically mean Clinton would take the same step if the choice arises again. It’s possible he might come down on the side of the labor movement that so generously supported his re-election campaign.

``I don’t know that management can feel so safe,″ said Terry Moulton, a partner in Airline Capital Associates, a consulting firm for the airline industry. ``The parties can’t count on another presidential move.″

Clinton’s action also doesn’t rule out an American pilots strike in 60 days. Under law he can’t block them from striking again, although Congress has the ability to impose a settlement on the union and the company.

Ironically by some accounts, both sides were extremely close to an agreement in the hours immediately before the 12:01 a.m. Saturday strike deadline.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that as little as $28 million separated the negotiators when time ran out. The airline already has said the pre-strike disruption will cost it more than three times that much.

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