Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official
The Briefing Room
3:44 P.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon.
Q: That concludes the entertainment program.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me try to walk through what has happened and then you all can ask questions. As most of you probably know, the Department of Labor and the Department of Transportation have been in discussions with the parties ever since the strike began and probably actually before the strike began, trying to get the parties back to the bargaining table and to discuss the differences they still have.
The White House had been kept informed by the Department of Labor and the Department of Transportation of those discussions. And this morning it was felt, with the holidays coming up and everything, that White House involvement might be useful.
I had a series of conversations with representatives of American Airlines and representatives of the Flight Attendants Association today basically just on the issue of trying to get them back to the bargaining table and some sort of framework for the discussions. This afternoon, those discussions got to the point where we felt like the President's involvement would be useful, so we pulled him out of the meeting with the President of the Philippines.
Q: Can you tell us --
Q: Was it out of the expanded meeting or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, it was late. What? 1:45, 2:00 p.m. almost?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, 1:35 p.m.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: 1:35 p.m. He spoke with the President of American Airlines, Bob Crandall, and with the President of the Flight Attendants Association, Denise Hedges. Went over where we were in our discussions and, you know, reached the final understanding as to what would be said.
Q: Separate conversations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Separate conversations.
Q: useful to ealier --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I had not spoken directly with Bob Crandall early. I had spoken with Denise Hedges earlier.
Q: Who from the administration had spoken with Crandall? Who had dealt with him?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know if anybody had spoken with him directly. I spoke with attorneys for American who I assumed were in communication --
Q: Had the agreement been worked out before the President got on the phone with --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Actually, there was some additional discussion. It's not an agreement. I want to make it clear. We didn't do anything. The parties have agreed to go back to work, back to the negotiating table to resolve any outstanding issues through binding arbitration, to rehire, excuse me, to reinstate all flight attendants. But this was not our agreement, this was their agreement; we simply helped facilitate the discussion. And there were no discussions of the ultimate terms of any labor contract. That will have to be determined between the parties and by arbitration.
Q: Had a framework been decided when the President got on the phone?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: For the most part. There were a few issues. An issue came up, I went back and discussed one additional factor with one of the parties while the President was speaking to the other party to make sure that that was understood.
Q: Could you be specific?
Q: Is this on the phone?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: These were on telephone, yes.
Q: How much time did you spend on the phone today on this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Since I started this morning, probably all morning back and forth.
Q: Would this have happened without the President's intervention in your opinion?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My --
Q: Sounds like they were going in that direction anyway.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My opinion is that the parties both wanted to try to resolve this matter and that we simply helped facilitate that.
Q: What was different today than yesterday when American refused to enter any kind of mediation agreement when rejected the flight attendants recommendations initially? What was different today other than the White House involvement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know.
Q: Whose idea was it to go to binding arbitration?
Q: Whose recommendation was it, was it Pena or Reich or someone who'd been involved who said to the White House today, the time is right for you to get involved?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, both of them -- we have had discussions with both Pena and Reich about what the status of the discussions were, their discussions with the parties. Again, I think with the holiday coming up, with the discussions where they were, it was just felt like maybe White House involvement --
Q: You said at the beginning that it was felt that the White House should get involved. Who was it who felt that? I mean, somebody must have said this is important?
Q: What was the first contact this morning, and who did it come from?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the first contact I had this morning -- I don't know if that's -- I don't know if I want to get into who spoke to who when.
Q: Well, it's important who initiated this. You say it was felt -- that's a nice -- there's nobody -- it was felt. Was it American, was it the flight attendants, was it the White House that felt because there --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it was -- the Labor Department, the Transportation Department indicating to us that -- what the status of their negotiations were.
Q: The Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of Transportation --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No -- the Secretary of Transportation I spoke to later; I did not speak to in the first conversation.
Q: Who said that things were not going well and --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think they thought it was going well. I thought they thought it was going well and that the parties were close but not there and that --
Q: What unresolved issue was resolved by your making a call when the President was on the phone? Was it the issue of them being rehired or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no, no. That had been discussed earlier. It was an issue having to do with what would be the status of the discussions during the arbitration period; what the status quo would be.
Q: And what is the status quo during the arbitration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, in my understanding is the status quo will be the free strike conditions.
Q: Who were you talking to and who was the President talking to when that happened? You said he on the phone with one party while you went and checked --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He was speaking with officials from the union who asked about this. I said I would have to check. I went and checked and got back --
Q: And was it you personally who asked the President to pick up the phone?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q: That was your decision.
Q: To what extent does this set a precedent for the White House becoming involved in a private labor dispute in which national security is not at issue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, again, we're not involved in any way in terms of settling the strike. The parties settled the strike. I think the government always has a role in trying to get the parties to talk to each other. And that's simply all we did today.
Q: Was there any problem in getting the binding arbitration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, that was in trouble. Both parties agreed to it.
Q: Before they came to you they were agreed on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Before they came here. Before the President spoke to them?
Q: Before the White House --
Q: Were they moving in that direction?
Q: the last few hours, was that a problem getting accepted?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was thrown out to both parties, both sides agreed to it.
Q: By who?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I mentioned it to both sides as a possibility.
Q: Did the President feel that the flight attendants were justified in going out on strike last week?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't think the President would want to comment. I certainly couldn't comment for the President --
Q: feel that they were justified in going out last week?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know the issues. I haven't studied the status of the negotiations. I don't know the history of the airlines. I don't think it would be appropriate to comment on it.
Q: Can you tell us some more about what your actual role was? First you said you just simply got the two sides to talk to each other. Now you're saying that you may have suggested binding arbitration. What did you bring to the table? How did you get them together?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, it was just simply -- if the parties would be agreeable to this, would you be agreeable to this. If the other side would be agreeable, would you be agreeable? Then go to the other side, you know. All we simply --
Q: Were you making the for the framework? Were you helping create that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we talked about a lot of different things, different ways to try to resolve it. There's been discussion about the National Mediation Board, whether that was a way to resolve it. So there was a whole series of discussions. In those discussions the possibility of arbitration came up. I took it to both sides, both sides appeared to be willing to agree to it.
Q: Did they agree on arbitrators, specific --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q: Can I just ask you about the status quo problem at the end? Just so it's clarified in my own mind, if I understood you correctly, at the end you had to make sure on the basis of a request from the flight attendants that pending finality of compulsory arbitration, their jobs would not be put in jeopardy by American Airlines.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, that wasn't the issue.
Q: Okay, what was the issue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The issue was that there were some -- once the contract ended, and I believe that was late October, October 29th perhaps, American Airlines instituted some work rule changes. The question became whether or not those work rule changes would continue during this period of discussion. And I simply, it was not an issue that I was aware of; I had it explained to me what had happened; I went to both sides and said, what is it? Are those work rule changes in effect, or will not be in effect and it was agreed that they would be in effect.
Q: And you clarified that for the flight attendants with American Airlines.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q: while the President --
Q: May I just finish? While the President --
Q: Wait a minute. He's given a totally different answer from when he did five minutes ago.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't think so.
Q: You said the pre-strike --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Pre-strike is --there's a period between October 29th and when they went out on last Wednesday. And there were work rule changes that were instituted, my understanding is, once the contract ended and were in effect up until the time of the strike.
Q: The attendants wanted those work rule changes?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right. But they wanted clarification as to what, under what rules were they going back. Were they going back to work under the pre-contract --
Q: Pre-contract expiration --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- terms are under the terms in effect and I -- it was not a sticking point, it was more of a point of information for them.
Q: And they're going back under the post-contract expiration terms which are the pre-strike conditions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's correct but the fact -- but those -- but the work rules are a matter that were not agreed upon, my understanding is, prior to the strike, and therefore would be a subject of discussion for the negotiations and perhaps arbitration. So, the work rules are on the table, the question is just what work rules would be in effect during the pendency.
Q: You still haven't defined why it was necessary for the President of the United States to personally get involved in this. You said things seemed to be going along okay. Why was it essential for him to do it? It seems like a pretty unprecedented thing.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not sure if unprecedented.
Q: Can you cite any other times when this --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not a history of presidential labor discussions, involvement, but again, we felt like primarily because the holiday coming up and the effect that the strike was going to have on Americans that it was a matter that if we could be of some assistance to the parties in trying to get them back to the table and end the strike that we should do so.
Q: The President, you mean. Is the President we -- I mean, the White House, you doing it is very different than the President of the United States talking on the phone to these people.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, again, we thought that in order to make sure that everybody understood what the discussions were, that the President calling both sides and discussing it with them and making sure that we were all on the same page was --
Q: Let me just finish the thought. The President, I'm sorry, could you finish that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We felt like is was, you know, again, that in order to make sure that everybody was understood what we were agreeing to, that the President's involvement was useful.
Q: You cited the disruption to travel with the holiday coming up several times, but you never said anything about the threat to fire these workers. Is that a concern of the government and of the President, or was it chiefly the disruption to Americans' travel schedule?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think the President has indicated that he supports striker replacement -- legislation on striker replacement -- and I think he's pleased that American agreed to reinstate all of the flight attendants.
QQ: -- incentive to get involved in this dispute? Was the threat to fire all those flight attendants one of the reasons the White House got involved?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, the White House got involved in this dispute because we felt like that we were at a point where we could be of some assistance in facilitating discussion between the parties.
Q: Was there ever a threat by the White House to force them into arbitration of some kind?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q: There was never any implicit threat? SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. Q: They were perfectly happy even though Crandall said
yesterday he wouldn't go for what the union was pushing for -- the type of arbitration they were pushing for yesterday.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, that was National Mediation Board. I don't believe he believed that the terms under the statute could be met. But no, there was no threat of any sort on the White House part.
Q: Could you characterize what the President's remarks were? I mean, was he giving assurances to the two sides that if they sat down the White House would be involved or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, there was no assurances. He simply got on the phone with both sides and said, I understand that you all have had some useful conversations and discussions. And let me -- let's recap where we are and make sure that we're all on the same page.
Q: How long did it take? Two minutes? Five minutes?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, probably three to five minutes with each.
Q: Bob Crandall said at a news conference that he'd been leaned on.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn't characterize it that way.
Q: Did the White House pressure --
Q: How would you characterize it? Persuasion? Nudging?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Facilitating. Thank you. (Laughter.)
Q: What's the timetable now? When does arbitration begin, when does it end? Is there a deadline?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don't -- obviously that will be between the parties and the arbitrator. There is no -- that has not been determined yet.
Q: And who chooses the arbitrator?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, that has not been determined yet.
Q? So when do they go back to work?
Q: length of arbitration? Is that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, length of arbitration basically involves both parties making their case. The arbitrator has some control over how much information he wants, the way the information is presented to him and then he makes a decision. That's within the parties and the arbitrator.
Q: But right now there are no specific timelines?
Q: Haven't you essentially bypassed the National Railway Labor Act -- the cooling off period -- the national mediation --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no. Again, we are not using the statutory authority of the National Mediation Board and all of that. We simply -- this is not our agreement. This is the agreement of the party -- understanding of the parties to go back to the table and to develop a framework to resolve their differences. It is --
Q: question answered in the middle of the room?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay.
Q: Who initiated the first call and at what time this morning?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I called both parties this morning. I frankly don't know what time.
Q: Well, roughly.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, sometime -- 10:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m. range.
Q: Who did you call first?
Q: 10:30 a.m. range? And this was set -- the second part of that -- when are they going to set -- start negotiating and where?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don't know --
Q: back to the table?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know where. My indication from both sides were they wanted to begin negotiation as soon as possible. I don't know exactly what that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: DOT
Q: Yeah, DOT might have a better feel for that.
Q: know when they're going back to work?
Q: When do they fly?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know that either. Hold on. Hold on a second. Again, I think both of them had an interest in going back as soon as possible. When that is, I don't know. DOT might have a better feel for that.
Q: Getting back to the question of precedence setting here. The people who keep track of these things say that no White House has been involved in ending an airline strike for at least 30 years. Do you see now this opening up a whole new role for the President? Every time -- or whenever there's a strike, people are going to say, well let's get the President involved. How are you going to deal with that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, we haven't resolved anything. We have simply brought the parties together. They have agreed -- and I think this President would -- when it's helpful, when there is a disruption to the American traveler as there will be if the strike had continued through the Thanksgiving holiday, when the President believes it's in the interest of the American people, I think he will always try to encourage the parties to sit down and resolve their differences collectively together. And that's all he did here was encourage them and help facilitate their going back to the table to resolve these parties -- these issues under terms that they agreed to, not that we imposed on --
Q: Do you think that this might be at all helpful to the President right now, considering his very bad relations with labor -- comments that were yesterday by --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't --
Q: Do you think that reaching out to these strikers will in any way help him in that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have no idea. I think the President has had and hopes to continue to have very good relations with organized labor.
Q: Let me finish just one question, please.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Go ahead.
Q: You established that -- you say that the President said in light of the coming holiday that it would disrupt and affect the general public. But who established that, because the airlines have said that we're beginning to get the flow -- even American --the flow straightened out and the other airlines are taking up and honoring our tickets, and the wait period is -- the flow is much better. Now, who said -- could you tell us who said this: This is going to interrupt the --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know if anybody said that --
Q: Well, then this is a presumption. Did you --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have a flight on Wednesday night, and it was disrupting my schedule.
Q: did the President ask you to look at this, or did you just sort of put it on your list of things to do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I had been involved in discussions, basically status reports from DOT and the Department of Labor and --
Q: How long?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, since the beginning of the strike.
Q: Well, how did you get assigned this? I mean, idle curiosity, as compared to the Cabinet Secretary or anything else?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Cabinet Secretary was also involved in it. The Cabinet Secretary was also involved in these discussions. You know, I have -- the fact of the matter is, in my former life I practiced employment labor law, so I have at least some understanding of some of the issues involved.
Q: So you thought it would be an issue that you wanted to involve yourself in?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: More exciting than personnel matters. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, not in any sort of formal way.
Q: The President never said "figure this out for me"?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q: On the work rules clarification that you got, I gather again the President was speaking with the President of the Flight Attendants Union at the same time you were speaking with Crandall to get that clarification so that the President could conduct his talk with the flight attendants, right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President was discussing with the President of the Flight Attendants Union, and the question came up. He said, I don't know, let me ask --. He did, I told him I didn't know the answer, that I would try to get the answer. Then I went out of the room, called representatives from American Airlines, asked them what their understanding was as to what the status quo was, what we were going back to. They indicated that their understanding was that we'd go back to the work rules --
Q: of the old contract.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. The work rules that were implemented after the old contract expired, but that the terms that the work rule changes were still on the table and would be a matter for discussion and negotiation and, ultimately, I guess, if no agreement between the parties, to arbitration.
Q: Did the President relay that to the head of the Flight Attendants Union?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Actually, I think the President, by that point, was off the phone and we called back and we --
Q: broadening as your job as personnel director is?
Q: Is this an example of how your role here is broadening as there is less need for you to be doing personnel matters?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not sure this is something that would happen typically. Obviously it hasn't happened for 30 years. If I had been aware of that, I may have been a little slower in getting involved.
Q: Does this mean you're going to be able to get home for Thanksgiving?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, ma'am.
Q: How was the decision made that the President would be the one to announce the news this afternoon? Did you discuss that with the two parties or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, apparently earlier a question had come up in a press availability, and he had given an answer -- since there had been developments since that answer, I think it was felt that we should go ahead and announce those developments.
Q: Did you call him out of the meeting? And what was going on in the meeting when you called --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I didn't personally go in and call him out.
Q: Was the meeting in the Oval Office that you took him out of?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think it was in the Cabinet Room.
Q: And where did you take him to make these calls? Back to the Oval Office?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oval Office.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END4:07 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/272307