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Clinton Calls for an End to Airline Strike

Labor: Transportation chief Slater is dispatched to meet with Northwest and its pilots. Also, TWA's pilots OK contract offer.

September 01, 1998| From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — President Clinton, stopping short of using his authority to end the strike at the nation's fourth-largest airline, said Monday that Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater will meet with top officials of Northwest Airlines and its pilots union in an effort to restart negotiations.

Both sides should "redouble" their efforts to end the work stoppage that has grounded hundreds of planes, Clinton said in a statement issued while he was en route to Russia, where he will meet with President Boris N. Yeltsin today.

"I hope that an agreement will be concluded soon," Clinton said, in the interests of the pilots, the airline "and the interest of the American people."

Slater is scheduled to meet with Northwest President and Chief Executive John Dasburg and Air Line Pilots Assn. President Randy Babbitt in Washington today. Northwest Vice President Richard Ben Hirst and Steve Zoller--the lead negotiators for the airline and the union, respectively--are also expected to attend the meeting. No time had been set for the meeting.

Earlier Monday, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called on the president to end the Northwest strike, which began Friday night. Lott said the impasse is already affecting the U.S. economy, particularly in the Midwest, where Northwest is the dominant carrier at the Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Memphis airports.

Lott said Clinton should use his authority under the Railway Labor Act to send the pilots back to work for at least 60 days while a presidential emergency board attempts to resolve the dispute. Clinton did exactly that in February 1997, when pilots at No. 2 carrier American Airlines went on strike.

Northwest has canceled all of its flights through Wednesday; it has been continuing to help passengers make accommodations on other airlines.

Meanwhile Monday, a strike threat was hanging over Air Canada. That airline's pilots, concerned about issues of pay and working conditions, have set a strike deadline of 9:01 p.m. PDT today. Air Canada was trying to find alternative transportation for its passengers, which number 60,000 daily.

Also on Monday, pilots for Trans World Airlines accepted a four-year contract offer, ending more than a decade of concessions and avoiding the possibility of a strike. About 60% of TWA's 2,100 union pilots approved the contract. The contract restores some of the pay pilots had agreed to give up over the last decade in a bid to save the troubled carrier, which is the nation's ninth-largest.

Northwest spokesman Dennis Mollura said the airline is not asking for a presidential emergency board. "Under the Railway Labor Act, the president may act when there is an economic harm to communities, not when there is a harm to airlines," Mollura said.

However, he said the airline was urging leaders from communities feeling the pinch from canceled flights to contact the Clinton administration with their concerns.

Northwest and the pilots union each insist it is the other's responsibility to restart talks, which broke down Friday over compensation and job-security issues. The airline says the pilots' demands would cost too much and limit its ability to compete when the industry's record profits come to an end.

Northwest also faces contract talks with its machinists, flight attendants and three smaller unions.

The strike is causing Northwest to absorb as much as $15 million in costs a day as its revenue has dwindled to nothing. Stock in the airline fell $2.38 to close at $27.81 on Nasdaq and reached a 52-week low of $27.638.

So far, the strike's impact has been relatively small on travelers and businesses, most of which had made other arrangements. But the longer the strike lasts, the more problems it will cause, particularly if it extends through the busy Labor Day weekend.

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