Questions are being raised within AFL-CIO over labor's lack of militant support for the air controllers strike. The issue appears certain to come up at the federation's biennial convention in New York next month.
Lane Kirkland, president of AFL-CIO, said recently that the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) walkout Aug. 3 resulted in "a tremendous amount of wires, letters, cards, and calls -- I would say I have never gotten such a response on any issue." About 90 percent backed the controllers and, Mr. Kirkland said, "about half of those denounced me for not calling a general strike" affecting all industry and government.
Last weekend, a frequent critic of AFL-CIO leadership policies, William P. Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), voiced strong objections to labor's failure to demonstrate solidarity behind PATCO. "My idea was to shut the airlines down," he said. Of IAM's 800,000 members, 40,000 work for airlines, primarily servicing planes and doing maintenance work.
However, other airline unions did not support Mr. Winpisinger's call for action during an AFL-CIO executive council meeting the day the controllers strike began.
Winpisinger, whose socialist views place him squarely in labor's left wing, conceded that militant strike backing for PATCO could have caused substantial problems for IAM and other unions. "It would have taken 15 years to fight damage suits and that would have had the potential to bankrupt us," he said.
Nevertheless, Winpisinger criticized the "absolute unwillingness" of most union leaders to do more for the controllers than collect funds to help strikers meet family emergencies. "They will not take on the establishment. They won't take a chance on rocking the boat," he said.
Other union officials, angry at Winpisinger's criticism, contend that while union members in the airline industry sympathize with the controllers, most would balk at an illegal sympathy strike to support them. John J. O'Donnell, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International, said his members think PATCO acted too precipitously and would not walk out to help its strike. "That pretty well leaves us helpless," he told Winpisinger.
Although Winpisinger is spokesman for only a minority, he could whip up wider support than usual at the upcoming convention with a rallying cry for an all-labor stand to force resumption of controller contract negotiations and reemployment of those discharged "permanently" from jobs in air traffic control towers.
The Reagan administration's adamant action against PATCO and its striking members is considered by labor to be an antiunion threat -- not only for public employee unions but also for union facing strong challenges in private employment. For this reason, there is an undercurrent in labor's ranks for a general strike, perhaps for a single day, to show solidarity in demands for an administration backdown on the controllers issue.
Kirkland is not taking this seriously at this time. "It would have to be a matter of the gravest national concern to bring me to the point of undertaking to organize a general strike in violation of our commitments to employers," he said recently.
General strikes are not directed against a single employer or industry but are designed to shut everything down and therefore, according to Kirkland, are a particular hardship on the public.
Although ruling out "a theoretical possibility" of a general strike under some extreme circumstances, "I find it hard to see what constructive and valuable end would be served by such an action."