American unionists are pitching in to help discharged flight controllers, payless since they struck on Aug. 3. But the financial aid, contributed through a special AFL-CIO fund, is being channeled to strikers' families, not to the controllers' union itself.
Any direct assistance to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) in its illegal strike against the government would itself be illegal.
Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO president, announced the creation of a special fund, the PATCO Family Fund, in letters to union affiliates, urging them to contribute liberally to assist controllers and their families, who are "beginning to confront individual financial burdens" as a result of "harsh and vindictive" government actions.
The communications Workers of America, representing thousands of public employees at state and local levels, was quick to respond with a $100,000 donation. Other unions have also pledged assistance.
The special fund, with its limited use, is typical of the cautious approach labor is taking to the PATCO walkout. Unions sympathize with the members dismissed from jobs for striking. They condemn the Reagan administration's hard-line bargaining and strike policies. But at the same time, they deplore PATCO's tactics, considered ill-advised and dangerous for all of organized labor.
Other unions have been, at most, lukewarm in their support for the strike. Union members have continued to cross controller picket lines. They have manned planes or serviced them on the ground. Airline operations could have been shut down if unions had given active backing to PATCO, but that support has been lacking.
Instead, unions are limiting their aid:
* They have taken a political stand by chastising the Reagan administration for bad faith in bargaining and for its subsequent massive firings, federal indictments, and alledged harassment of PATCO and its striking members.
Relations between President Reagan and the union movement have deteriorated further. The Bricklayers Union has withdrawn convention invitations previously extended to Mr. Reagan and Labor Secreetary Raymond J. Donovan, explaining that the invitations are "inappropriate at this time."
* Labor leaders have turned to railroads, buses, and private cars for travel, avoiding as much as possible the use of airlines as an expression of support for striking controllers. An AFL-CIO Executive Council member who rode a train back to Washington from a Chicago conference said this is a "symbolic gesture -- it shows how we feel." He conceded that the protest will have little effect.
* In Chicago, union groups have rallied to support PATCO strikers and their families by supplying food for them.
* Union officials, including Mr. Kirkland and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas R. Donahue, have joined controllers on picket lines to show labor solidarity. In addition, union members have arranged in a number of urban areas to baby-sit children of controllers who are picketing or demonstrating.
* Union leaders are working quietly behind the scenes to muster congressional and public support to pressure the Reagan administration for resumption of bargaining and for a settlement that would include amnesty for the fired controllers.
Kirkland recently met with the executive board of AFL-CIO's Public Employee Department and other labor officials for a wide-ranging discussion of the problems raised by the PATCO strike and what might be done to get the parties back to the bargaining table for an equitable settlement.