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Jewish World Review March 26, 2001 / 2 Nissan, 5761

Michael Collins

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Consumer Reports

Airlines can crash Bush's sucesses -- The threat of airline strikes could be a crucial test of President Bush's future relations with organized labor and become a defining issue for his presidency, political and industry analysts say.

Like Ronald Reagan, who fired the nation's air-traffic controllers just a few months after taking office, Bush acted swiftly earlier this month when he intervened in a dispute between Northwest Airlines and its mechanics, effectively delaying a strike for 60 days while the two sides try to reach agreement.

Now, Bush faces the possibility that pilots for Cincinnati-based Comair will walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. Monday unless they are able to reach a new contract with management.

How Bush handles the dispute between Comair and its 1,350 pilots will be significant because it will show just how deep he's willing to wade into labor-management disagreements, said Aaron Gellman, a professor and aviation expert at Northwestern University.

"Certainly the Northwest situation is more threatening for the economy's well being than is Comair, which has a narrower paint brush,'' Gellman said. "It's an important decision for the White House.''

What Bush does in the Comair case "will help us to know where the line is between what he sees as a strike threatening the public interest sufficiently and those which do not,'' Gellman said.

So far, Bush has given no clue about whether he plans to intervene. A White House spokesman said this week that Bush is waiting to hear from the National Mediation Board, which is acting as the middleman between the carrier and its pilots.

For Bush to intervene, the mediation board would have to conclude that a strike would substantially interrupt interstate commerce and deprive a segment of the country of essential transportation service.

Bush has said publicly that he intends to "protect the flying public" and "take the necessary steps to prevent airline strikes from happening this year.''

Labor leaders and some industry analysts say Bush's tough talk sends a signal that he's ready to intervene in any airline labor-management dispute - a move that unions say will give management the upper hand.

"It will exacerbate ongoing negotiations and make it more difficult to achieve a settlement at the bargaining table, which is where these agreements have got to be reached,'' said Bill Samuel, legislative director for the AFL-CIO.

John Budd, an expert in airline labor relations at the University of Minnesota, said the right to engage in collective bargaining and the right to strike are fundamental democratic freedoms. "I think, frankly, the president has taken a pretty cavalier attitude toward this and has been pretty quick to encroach on those freedoms,'' Budd said.

Historically, presidents have been reluctant to get involved in airline labor disputes. But experts say Bush has nothing to lose since he has never had the support of organized labor.

At the same time, postponing a strike allows him to score political points with the public, which lost sympathy for the airlines long ago, said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Governmental Studies.

"People are so outraged with the way airlines treat customers,'' Sabato said. "We've all had the experience of waiting and waiting and then being lied to. All of this is coming back to haunt the airline workers, and it strengthens Bush's hand enormously.''

Sabato sees a parallel between Bush's response to the threat of airline strikes and Reagan's firing of the air-traffic controllers in 1981. Reagan's actions, though heavily criticized at the time, enhanced his image as a decisive leader.

"People were stunned when Reagan fired the air-traffic controllers,'' Sabato said. "But he stuck it out. He stuck to that policy, and it ended up working out. He won.''

Bush could come out a winner as well, Sabato said.

"As long as he keeps the planes flying, he will be fine and gain politically,'' Sabato said.

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