End of Flight Attendants' Walkout Sends Mixed Message to Unions

Strike may bring gains, but it's a risky move in competitive market

UNIONS cherish the right to strike as a last resort to force employers to the bargaining table. But some negotiation specialists say walking out is an outmoded strategy in today's economy.

``Most unions typically represent folks who have replaceable skills,'' says Robin Pinkley, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and business policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

She says when businesses are cutting costs to remain competitive, and with job applicants aplenty, a strike may be just the excuse management needs to substitute recruits at entry-level pay for higher-earning veterans.

Before President Clinton intervened Nov. 22, that process had been under way at Fort Worth-based American Airlines. After losing $1.5 billion in the past three years, the nation's largest airline returned to profitability by discontinuing uneconomical routes and aircraft. American earned $143 million in the first three quarters of 1993.

Meanwhile, a year of negotiations over a new, six-year contract with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants had reached an impasse. American chairman Robert Crandall insisted that the airline could not improve its offer.

Mediators recommended binding arbitration. The APFA agreed; American refused.

``They were simply unyielding,'' says Eric Bergman. A negotiator for the 21,000 American flight attendants, Mr. Bergman says some have seen their real wages eroded by 40 percent this contract period. Starting salary is $14,500; the median $23,000.

The union walked out Nov. 18, causing more than half of American's jets to fly without passengers. The strike was costing American $10 million-plus a day at the start of the Thanksgiving travel season, the year's busiest.

As the airline's 200,000 passengers a day scrambled to salvage their holiday plans, American hired replacement flight attendants. But on Nov. 22, Mr. Clinton made a phone call to Mr. Crandall that ended the strike, saved strikers' jobs, and compelled American to enter binding arbitration with the union.

Crandall made it clear that Clinton, Godfather-like, had made him an offer he couldn't refuse. ``The president's proposal of binding arbitration is much less troublesome than the threat of a presidential emergency board,'' he said in a statement.

``The strike is OVER.... Unity really does pay,'' crowed the recorded announcement at APFA headquarters. Bergman calls the development ``a victory of the oppressed standing up to their oppressor,'' even without knowing the outcome of arbitration.

``Flight attendants have felt, for many years, that we are not treated with respect by the management of this corporation,'' he says. ``You don't shut the world's largest airline down without getting a little bit of attention out of it.''

But few unions have the power to cause such losses or inconvenience to so many that the president steps in. That's why Ms. Pinkley believes unions must take a positive approach to negotiations, focusing on how the union can provide more value to the company than replacement workers.

``Negotiation is an exchange of value,'' she says. ``But many unions are not talking value language. Instead, what they're doing is talking about loss, loss, loss, threat, threat, threat. In this market, it just doesn't work.''

``When you frame it in terms of loss, the other side responds by digging in their heels, and they become real contentious. They're less likely to settle. And when they do settle, they demand greater value,'' Pinkley adds.

``Nobody strikes without a great deal of forethought and a great deal of angst,'' counters Jane Goodman, communications director at the Association of Flight Attendants. The union represents 33,000 flight attendants at 21 airlines.

The AFA is now conducting an ``information picket'' against USAir Shuttle, whose members have not had a contract in four years or a raise in 13 years. After agreeing to a 20 percent wage reduction in 1983, those flight attendants now earn a maximum of $17,000 after five years.

At Alaska Airlines, whose employees belong to the AFA, flight attendants have launched intermittent or flight-specific work stoppages called CHAOS - Create Havoc Around Our System.

``The right to strike is crucial to keeping a level playing field,'' Ms. Goodman says. ``It's still the only way to get attention'' if management refused to negotiate.

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