Where Presidents Shouldn't Tread

President Clinton's dramatic intervention in the American Airlines Inc. strike raises worrisome questions about when and how the government should stick its nose into labor-management disputes.

Just the day before, American Chairman Robert L. Crandall refused a request from flight attendants for arbitration. His reason: The company must lower its costs to be competitive, and an arbitrator is likely to simply split the difference between the two sides. Since that's usually how arbitrators work, Clinton's action may set back American's cost-control efforts. That message won't be lost on unions at United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and USAir.

The great danger is that the President's intervention will be interpreted throughout the economy as the reverse of what President Reagan did in the air-traffic controllers' strike. The worry is that this time, instead of holding down wages, the government will set a pattern of expensive pro-union contracts that drives up inflation. If Clinton is sending a post-NAFTA signal to unions that he will back them against management in all their disputes, the economy is going to face new inflationary pressures just as it's picking up steam.

Can a neutral outsider help American and the other major airlines solve their problems in a more peaceful fashion? Crandall has suggested that he wants to try a cooperative approach. But instead, both Crandall and the unions seem to have pursued the old-fashioned brinksmanship bargaining that often leads to lost jobs and red ink.

Maybe an arbitrator will help. But barring any national emergency, which this airline strike was not, President Clinton should use his political clout for solving broader economic problems.