U.S.A.

Clipped wings

Reagan out-manoeuvres the air controllers

MICHAEL POSNER August 17 1981
U.S.A.

Clipped wings

Reagan out-manoeuvres the air controllers

MICHAEL POSNER August 17 1981

Clipped wings

U.S.A.

Reagan out-manoeuvres the air controllers

"This is notice that I intend to remove you from your position of Air Traffic Control Specialist....” With that terse preface, the U.S. government last week started issuing pink slips to some 12,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). The walkout, in violation of a federal law prohibiting public service strikes, set off a bitter week-long fusillade of charges and countercharges, disrupted the nation’s airlines and seemed likely to create major changes in the industry.

In its first serious confrontation with organized labor, the Reagan administration was unyielding. When PATCO (on July 31) gave the transportation secretary just 72 hours to draft a more generous wage agreement, his department stood firm. And when the walkout began, the president promptly issued his own ultimatum. Strikers had 48 hours to return to work or be terminated. Most refused.

Indeed, from the government’s point of view, the strike was effectively over by week’s end. Supervisors and military controllers were assigned to man the radar rooms. Air traffic was running at almost 80 per cent of normal volume. Preliminary plans were being laid to double or triple the number of graduates of the Federal Aviation Administration’s training academy in Oklahoma City. Concluded Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis: “It’s a non-

strike situation. Our concern is rebuilding the system.” The union was no less defiant. “We aren’t going back to work—period,” declared its rebellious president, Robert Poli. PATCO apparently believed that the longer the strike lasted, the greater would pressures be in the nation’s air traffic control towers.

In fact, most major airports were functioning smoothly, although the airlines reported losses of millions of dollars daily in empty seats. More crucially, perhaps, the union seemed to have lost the moral war; the average controller’s salary is already $33,000 (U.S.) annually and PATCO was seeking nearly $8,000 a year above the government’s final offer, which the union leadership had previously accepted. Lewis offered to renegotiate wages, hours and retirement benefits if the strikers went back to work. Poli declined.

Even among unions that might have been expected to support the strike, less than effective measures

were taken. In Ottawa, an official of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association announced the union’s intention to demonstrate outside the U.S. Embassy and at U.S. consulates across the country in a show of support for its American counterparts. And in response to a request by the Geneva-based International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Associations, many European controllers restricted their operations. French controllers voted to stop handling U.S. flights altogether, while others were assisting U.S. flights to the mid-Atlantic but no farther. In Britain, controllers announced they would meet this week to discuss possible action. But these gestures, as well as warnings to pilots that U.S. skies were unsafe, may have been too late to help PATCO.

With PATCO’s defeat seemingly assured, industry analysts were beginning to tally the consequences. Fewer flights would be scheduled, allowing airlines to eliminate unprofitable routes and to ground smaller, less energy-efficient planes. With more demand for fewer spaces, air fares would climb and there would be less competition—just the reverse of what was intended by airline deregulation. As for PATCO, it faces hearings this week that could lead to decertification: that would be the first time in labor history that a public union had been deprived of its representation rights. MICHAEL POSNER