New York — The air traffic controllers' attempt to force the federal government back to the bargaining table appears to be buckling under almost insurmountable federal court pressure.
Militant controllers and their leaders maintained stubbornly that they would remain on strike until the government faces basic issues squarely and fairly. But the scene appeared set for a return to control towers this week, accompanied by a fiery denunciation of the Reagan administration for "strike breaking" and "union busting" tactics -- words also used by Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, as he put the 14 million-member federation behind the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (Patco).
As controllers began to trickle back to jobs on the second day of the walkout , Patco president Robert Poli appeared to moderate union demands with statements of a willingness to talk with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) negotiators about "any combination" of improvements in work hours as a basis for a settlement.
US Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said that the FAA "would certainly discuss a rearrangement of contract terms" within the limits of the original $40 million settlement.
The AFL-CIO's support is hardly likely to help controllers win the desperate gamble they made when they struck at the opening of day shifts Aug. 3. According to Mr. Poli, controllers knew that the odds were heavily against them. The controllers struck, he said, as a last resort in an effort to win what they consider a fairer settlement.
One controller, Tony Mamone of New York, expressed a common attitude when he grimly said, "I've got to do what I've got to do." He was angry over the terms of a late- June settlement, which he and other controllers insist ignored such basic issues as a need for shortened work time -- a 32-hour week and retirement after 20 years. He said, "I think they will fire us, but we'll just have to stick it out on the picket line. At some point the government will have to talk again."
If and when it does, Patco's position will be critically weaker. In striking , the union overestimated the impact of its walkout on air travel and underestimated the Reagan administration's determination to take and hold a hard line against additional concessions.
Theunion assumed that control towers emptied of Patco controllers would bring an immediate public outcry, forcing the government to give greater concessions. Instead, the public took the strike in stride, as up to half of all plane service was maintained. For its part, the government made clear in a single half-hour meeting that it was standing firmly by its $40 million settlement cost. Government actions since the beginning of the strike could seriously undermine, if not end, Patco's future as a union. By the second day of the strike:
* The government immediately went to court in 15 cities to take out 22 writs based on an injunction issued several years ago specifically reinforcing the no-strike ban on federal employees. A federal court judge in New York began fining the union $100,000 an hour -- or $2.4 million a day -- as of 11:00 a.m. Tuesday, after finding Patco in contempt of court for ignoring the injunction. Patco has a $3.5 million strike fund. Fines also could cost strikers thousands of dollars. Their leaders could be jailed.
* The Reagan administration warned strikers that they would be dismissed for violating the conditions of their employment. Secretary Lewis said the warnings are "definitely serious." The threat of firings, he said, is not a form of intimidation, but a realistic reminder of employment obligations. "Certainly we want them back," he said. "But we are going to replace them if they stay on strike illegally."
Patco notes that it takes two to three years to train a controller. Mr. Lewis concedes this could be a major problem, but the FAA has 9,000 applications for controller jobs. It also can reassign working controllers at small airports not under Patco contracts and "borrow" military controllers.
* The government insists that there can be no negotiations while the controllers are on strike, and Patco insists as strongly that controllers will not return to towers until there are "substantive negotiations" on improvements in work conditions.
* Airlines, complaining of losses in the millions of dollars each day the strike continues, also went to court against Patco.