Washington — Pawky Gov. Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts telegraphed labor leader Samuel Gompers in the Boston police strike in 1919: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere." Public approval of this stand ultimately made Coolidge president.
Now Ronald Reagan, who has put Coolidge's picture in his office, has responded with outrage to a walkout of some 17,000 key air traffic controllers who temporarily threw the enormous US air travel complex into confusion. The White House asked and received an injunction against the walkout, impounded the personnel, and threatened absentees with penalties that could go up to $1,000 or a year in prison.
The government also sent FBI agents and US marshals to dozens of airports to gather lists of striking controllers for criminal prosecution under laws barring walkouts by federal employees. Marshals were dispatched to 19 cities and 21 districts throughout the nation to determine which union members were breaking the antistrike law.
In a prepared statement Monday, Mr. Reagan told the controllers:
"I must tell those who failed to report to work for duty this morning they are in violation of the law and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated."
He said that an earlier wage agreement was "reached and signed by both sides" but that now the union demands "17 times the earlier agreement, $681 million," and imposes "a tax burden on their fellow citizens which is unacceptable." He hailed signs that some supervisors were reporting for work.
The anger of the administration was unconcealed. "Bad faith," charged presidential aide Edwin S. Meese III at a breakfast with reporters Aug. 3. He referred to talks with Robert Poli, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (Patco). Mr. Poli negotiated an agreement which members of the union rejected. Mr. Meese said the government was moving to impound the strike fund but that this measure required approval of a government board. "I don't think there's much support for the strikers because of their high pay," he declared.
It is illegal for a union of US employees to strike against the government where public safety is involved.
Ronald Reagan got a reputation for toughness in civil disputes in California. His chief of staff, Meese, took a hard law-and-order line while serving as deputy district attorney in Oakland, Calif. During the "People's Park" episode in Berkeley, Calif., in 1969, when students tried to take over a university-owned parking lot, Meese urged then-Governor Reagan to call in sheriff's deputies and the National Guard. Violence followed, resulting in one casualty.
Meese, now considered Reagan's No. 1 adviser, still takes a hard line on law and order despite his affable demeanor. Between his work for Reagan in Sacramento and Washington he was director of the Center for Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the School of Law of the University of San Diego.
In his prepared text, the President said he respected the right to strike in the private sector and recalled that he once headed an AFLCIO union. "But we cannot compare labor- management relations in the private sector with the government," he said. "Government cannot close down the assembly line, it has to provide without interruption the protective services which are the government's reason for being."
Questions arise here how the union can continue talks with the government under the administration order of no negotiations during a strike.
Patco leaders were defiant. Members knew their risks before they acted, a spokesman said. He charged the government had abandoned its "middle ground" position.