Bush at the Controls

The last thing the drooping US economy needs is a major airlines strike, grounding tourism and business travel. That's why the tentative agreement between Northwest Airlines and its mechanics union is good news.

It shows that the often bitter differences between executive suites and front-line employees in this key industry can be negotiated into a credible deal - if the incentives are right.

In Northwest's case, one incentive was the threat of federal intervention. President Bush last month took the unusual step of setting up a Presidential Emergency Board, which has the power to recommend a settlement that can be imposed by Congress.

Reasonably, management and union chose to come up with their own settlement, rather than chance an imposed one. What emerged is a draft contract that gives the mechanics, whose rank and file still must vote on the agreement, most of what the union wanted in the way of significant pay hikes. At the same time, it gives Northwest the prospect of clear flying ahead, minus labor turbulence.

Also just ahead is the prospect of a pilots' strike at Delta Air Lines. Flight attendants at United also are weighing a walkout, as are mechanics and ground crews at American.

For his part, the president has vowed to take "necessary steps" to prevent any airline strikes this year. His emergency board move with Northwest served notice as to what that means. The other companies and unions doubtless got the message.

This exercise of White House clout has been criticized by airline unions as thwarting their strike leverage. In the current economic climate, however, such clout is needed.

The Northwest negotiations indicate, moreover, that presidential intervention needn't work to the detriment of workers who feel they're making legitimate demands.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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