CLINTON WATCH : Labor Turbulence

Guess who's coming to dinner? Thousands of travelers who just a day ago faced the prospect of Thanksgiving Day dinner at an airport coffee shop because of a crippling strike by flight attendants against American Airlines. Now most of those travelers will be on their way to holiday vacations because President Clinton, with impressive timing, intervened.

Clinton worked the phones to get Robert L. Crandall, chairman of American, and Denise Hedges, president of the flight attendants union, to agree to arbitration in their bitter labor dispute over pay, work rules and staffing levels.

Flight attendants called an 11-day strike last Thursday to coincide with the Thanksgiving holiday period. The day before Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest day of the year for airline travel.

Such intervention by the executive branch is unusual but not unprecedented. After a bitter faceoff with organized labor over the North American Free Trade Agreement, the airline dispute gave Clinton a chance to appear sympathetic to a striking union. However, the truce also ended the $10-million-a-day hemorrhage that American Airlines was suffering because of the strike.

The presidential intervention did nothing to solve the other problems the nation's struggling airlines face, of course. The industry still is under tremendous pressures as the major carriers--American, United and Delta--strain to slash costs, including labor cost, and fend off budget-oriented, upstart competitors. The future is likely to feature a bumpy ride for big airlines and their employees.

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