This article originally appeared in the Detroit News on March 29, 2001 at .

By ROBERT P. HUNTER / Special to The Detroit News   

On March 11, President George W. Bush appointed an emergency board -- his right under the 1926 National Railway Labor Act -- to mediate the contentious labor dispute involving Northwest Airlines and its mechanics' union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). And he has not intervened in the Comair pilots' strike because he hasn't received such a recommendation from the National Mediation Board.

The move by the president on the Northwest situation -- diametrically opposite the one his father made in the Eastern Airlines labor dispute in 1989 -- sends a clear signal the unions did not want to hear. The signal, consistent with Bush's and other Washington politicians' public statements, is that he and his Capitol Hill allies are willing to move down the road toward a forced settlement rather than risk the possibility of a nationwide airline labor strike.

The union has more to fear from a forced settlement brokered by Congress than does the airline. After all, if politics takes over and the process goes up for grabs, what's to stop Northwest from negotiating a better deal for itself than its offer to the union, by all accounts more generous than those enjoyed by mechanics at the other airlines?

The fear of a nationwide strike is more than justified; in fact, it is enshrined in law. The National Railway Labor Act, which governs labor disputes in the rail and airline industries, establishes a nationwide monopoly bargaining position for the AMFA. This means the union -- to step up pressure against Northwest -- can legally enmesh other carriers and their employees in the dispute.

In this way, the strike could easily spread across the country to all airlines at all locations. Detroit Metro Airport, already severely strained, could be the epicenter of a nationwide transportation bottleneck.

President Bush understands this. During this 30-day period, his emergency board members will evaluate the dispute and offer settlement recommendations to both Northwest and the AMFA. In the meantime, the parties have three options:

* Come to agreement and settle the dispute now.

* Accept the settlement terms offered by the board.

* Go ballistic with full-scale economic warfare by mid-May.

At whatever point scenario No. 3 appears inevitable, the president and his allies in Congress more than likely will step in to lawfully impose compulsory arbitration on the parties to settle their differences. There is precedent for this in the 1960s, when Congress approved a joint resolution requiring arbitration of two issues in a railroad dispute that was also subject to the Railway Labor Act. The congressional action constituted the first compulsory arbitration law ever passed by the federal government during peacetime.

As recently demonstrated by its inability to preserve ergonomics standards, the AMFA and its big labor brethren may lack the political clout on Capitol Hill to stop legislation dictating undesirable terms. They certainly couldn't prevent presidential executive orders that keep them at the bargaining table. These would be terrible precedents for the labor movement.

The union leadership should consider that with Republicans in charge of the White House and both houses of Congress, there is a different political attitude in Washington, one far less likely to stick up for unions with a nationwide airline shutdown looming. The fact that the national economy is already stumbling will add credibility to the claim that federal intervention is justified to avert a national emergency.

Lawmakers have already publicly signaled their unwillingness to tolerate a major transportation dispute, especially since three other major airline labor disputes could boil over during the peak travel months of summer 2001. The Comair pilots' strike against Delta Airlines may fuel these congressional concerns.

There are good reasons the Northwest dispute is receiving such focused attention, and union leaders should take note.

Despite all this, neither a government-imposed settlement nor a protracted strike is desirable or inevitable. National labor leaders could constructively play a behind-the-scenes role by counseling AMFA leaders to more realistically assess how far they can push the airline toward a deal without risking a wider blowup.

In a perfect world, government intervention to prevent a strike would be wrong. But in our Railway Labor Act world -- one where government favors labor unions by granting them monopoly power -- further intervention can be justified.

While it takes "two to tango," there is a lot at stake here for all who believe in free collective bargaining with minimal government interference. The parties can do us all a favor by getting back to the bargaining table, doing a reality check and reaching an equitable settlement that will make further government meddling unnecessary.

Robert P. Hunter, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, is director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based research and educational institute. Write letters to 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or fax them to (313) 222-6417 or send e-mail to