Because the economic reach of the pilots’ union vastly exceeded its political grasp, President Clinton was free to intervene almost instantly to keep the jets flying when the pilots struck American Airlines just after midnight on Friday.
In making his decision, Clinton had to weigh the potential fury of tens of thousands of holiday travelers, the pleas of Republican and Democratic lawmakers from states like California and Florida, and the prospect of a blow to the economy costing up to $200 million a day, against the wishes of 9,000 pilots who are mostly Republicans and are not even concentrated in one state.
By intervening, Clinton invoked his extraordinary powers under the 1926 Railway Labor Act, suspending the strike for up to 60 days while a newly convened emergency board develops a proposed agreement and the two sides consider it. The last president to intervene this way in an airline strike was Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1966.
Clinton was given room to maneuver by his allies in organized labor. The AFL-CIO had recommended he not intervene, but the labor federation made no public fuss about it on Friday as the strike deadline loomed.
And Saturday, the organization seemed to shrug off Clinton’s decision, which undermined the pilots’ bargaining position by snatching away, at least temporarily, their most powerful lever.
“We support the collective bargaining process,” said Denise Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO. “It seemed as if the process was moving forward, but it had not yielded a contract at that point. There are a lot of workers involved, and a lot of consumers who would be affected, and we respect the decisions that were made.”
The Allied Pilots Association is not a member of the AFL-CIO. In fact, it is isolated even within the airline industry, representing only the pilots at American. In 1963, the American pilots split away from the Air Line Pilots Association, which is a member of the labor federation and still represents pilots at most major carriers. If the American pilots succeed in achieving their desired contract, they would put enormous pressure on the leadership of the pilots association, which has not won such substantial gains.
Even the other unions at American were not lining up to support a strike by the pilots, who earn on average $120,000 a year.
In a strike, American had planned to put most of its 81,000 other employees on leave.
The union may have isolated itself even further because of a comment made by its president, James Sovich, during a presentation to Wall Street analysts last week.
To help explain a point that the pilots respected American’s managers but did not trust them, Sovich said many Americans had similar feelings about Clinton: “They think he’s doing a great job, but they don’t think he’s ethical.”
The comment apparently reached Clinton’s ears.
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