US air unions give thanks for victory

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

WASHINGTON - American organised labour is congratulating itself on its biggest victory for more than 12 years as flight attendants return to work at American Airlines after President Bill Clinton persuaded the airline to accept binding arbitration, writes Patrick Cockburn.

The strike had reduced airports across the country to chaos as Americans struggled to get home for the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow.

The victory of the 21,000 flight attendants is important because the dispute - and Mr Clinton's willingness to become involved - may set the tone for battles between unions and employers in the 1990s. Twelve years ago a decade of decline for organised labour set in after President Reagan dismissed striking air-traffic controllers.

Mr Clinton's intervention was partly a sop to unions, which had vigorously fought his North American Free Trade Agreement. Although the proportion of the workforce which is unionised has fallen to less than one-fifth, organised labour is still a vital constituency for the Democratic party.

The flight attendants were both skilful and lucky in defeating American Airlines, one of the top two US carriers, which is trying to reduce the number of attendants on each plane. By choosing for their strike the 11 days around Thanksgiving, the busiest time of year at American airports, the attendants inflicted maximum damage on the airline. American Airlines also underestimated the support for the strike.

Mr Clinton's intervention offered the airline's chairman, Robert Crandall, an excuse to accept binding arbitration that he had rejected at the weekend as likely to lead to concessions to the union.