Midnight intervention by Clinton halts pilots' strike

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President Clinton invoked emergency powers granted under a rarely used 70-year-old law to block a strike called by American Airlines pilots in the small hours of yesterday morning.

White House sources said the president had been initially reluctant to intervene in the labour dispute between the pilots' union and America's second largest airline but did so after Department of Transportation officials had briefed him on the damage a stoppage would inflict on the national economy.

Shortly after midnight yesterday he signed an executive order declaring the strike illegal and setting up a presidential emergency board charged with breaking the deadlock between the two parties. "They owe that to each other and to the travelling public," Mr Clinton said.

It was the first time in 30 years that a president had invoked a controversial clause in the Railway Labour Act requiring striking union members to return to work pending recommendations by a White House panel to resolve the dispute. The panel has 60 days to come up with a solution. Should the pilots reject the panel's recommendations they would be free once more to strike and then it would be up to Congress to decide whether to force them back to work by enacting new legislation.

The pilots and the company were locked in intense negotiations last week over pay and conditions of work but it became evident on Friday night, the deadline the pilots had set for going on strike, that the two sides remained far apart.

President Clinton was up playing solitaire in the White House, the Washington Post reported, when the news came that the strike was on. Informed that the strike would cost the American economy about $200m (pounds 125m) a day and strand a fifth of American Airlines' 200,000 daily passengers, the president signed his executive order.

The pilots responded to the news not with outrage but, as their job requires, with calm. Wallace Pitts, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, said: "Tonight history was made with the world's largest airline strike. History was also made in the deregulated era denying us the right to strike."

Yet there was no suggestion that the pilots had any intention of challenging the president's order. Indeed, the initial response from pilots involved in negotiations with the airline was that they welcomed the establishment of the presidential panel and trusted it would come up with a solution acceptable to all.