Reagan, controllers: eyeball to eyeball, and neither blinked

President Reagan's test of will in the air traffic controllers strike provides melodrama -- and it may change industrial history. Every tick of the clock builds up the fines against the union striking against the United States government. For the first time, a union's contingency fund -- in this case $3.5 million -- may be impounded. And for Mr. Reagan, following his budget and tax victories in Congress, there is the role of firm national leader pitted against what his administration sees as an unjustified adversary.

The 13,000 striking air traffic controllers continued to defy presidential and judicial sanctions.

The nation waited Aug. 5 for the 11 a.m. deadline originally set for the government's ultimatum to the strikers only to have it postponed at the last minute. The drama heightened, at scenes ranging from tall airport turrets and radio rooms to confused passenger depots.

United Press International reports that the government began executing its plan to fire strikers, preparing dismissal notices Wednesday for controllers on both coasts who refused Reagan's back-to-work order.

The first letters, to be delivered by registered mail, were prepared in California where controllers failed to show up for their 8 a.m. (PDT) shift, violating Reagan's 11 a.m. (EDT) deadline. Four hours later, at 3 p.m. (EDT), notices were prepared in New York for controllers refusing to work the first East Coast shift to all under the firing timetable. The White House said there would be no reprieve for those striking in defiance of federal law.

[Meanwhile, at least five union leaders and officials were arrested, one in Virgnia and four more in Kansas City, Kan.]

Questions of importance to the American labor movement hang in the balance.

Are all strikes against public bodies automatically illegal? They are fairly frequent in Europe. And, ironically, just at the time of the US crisis some 23, 000 clerks of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers are in the sixth week of their strike against the government.

Questions arose here whether the present showdown was necessary, and whether the existence of a ban against strikes by federal workers prevents normal collective bargaining. Does the mandatory pledge not to strike actually tempt confrontations, it is asked -- as, for example, in the recent threat of a US postal strike?

More urgent questions are the safety of passengers under the remaining airport controllers, working under pressure on 10-and 12-hour days. A local controller in the airport tower follows the plane off the runway, passes responsibility to the radar room and, in an intricate system, keeps track by radar, radio, and voice over assigned paths.

The men now on strike live in a tense world of standardized jargon and with the knowledge that even a slight error is irretrievable. They are used to strain and pressure.

On the other side, President Reagan is quietly adamant. He seeks to make his adversaries look greedy in their wage demands and untrustworthy in their disregard of no-strike pledges. He notes that at one time in the negotiations an agreement was reached between the union leaders and the government -- an agreement later rejected by the rank and file.

Since then the government has thrown the book at the strikers.

There are a couple of injunctions against union leaders, subsidiary injunctions against chapters in many states, a $100,000-an-hour penalty that the union is ordered to pay the nation's airlines as long as the work stoppage continues, a hold on the union's accumulated strike fund, and individual blacklisting of each striker that would apparently bar them from any government employment hereafter.

Congress banned strikes against the government in World War I, and in the 1940s ordered that any strikers challenging this ban would be subjected to criminal prosecution as well as dismissal.In 1971 the US Supreme Court upheld, without comment, a lower court's ruling that there is no constitutional right to strike against the government. To bargain with federal workers the government uses the quasi-independent federal labor relations authority. Airline pilots are unionized, but they do not work for the government as do the controllers. It would be legal for them to strike against their private employers even if it disrupted the economy as much as a controllers' walkout.

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