A threatened strike by the nation's air traffic controllers would present the Reagan administration with its first serious labor confrontation. The people who man airport control towers across the United States are federal employees, barred by law from striking. But they are poised to defy the law and leave their posts at 7 a.m. Monday, June 22. The strike could cause a staggering disruption of airline service.
Should President Reagan step into the dispute, personally or otherwise, he faces loss of ground with organized labor -- a special interest group with which the Republican administration's already are strained. If Mr. Reagan does not intervene, there is a strong possibility of an airline disruption that could reduce passenger flights by at least 50 percent and cause serious problems in scheduling vacation, business, and other travel.
The President's relations with organized labor are deteriorating as a result of the administration's economic and social policies. Regardless of how other unions may feel about the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in the current contract dispute with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) -- and there are indications that not all approve of PATCO's strong demands -- organized labor invariably tightens ranks at any suggestion of government interference with bargaining.
PATCO, which represents 15,000 of the 17,000 controllers in the airline industry, rejected on June 17 a contract proposal by the government which would have provided $40 million a year in additional wages and benefits.
Complaining that the offer from the FAA "didn't deal with any substantive issues as we saw them," PATCO broke off negotiations.
The action brought the possibility of a strike closer -- and tightened pressures on President Reagan to step into the dispute either personally or through a top aide.
Air cargo service would also be affected by the strike. Overall, an airline executive says, the result of the strike would be "immediate chaos, absolute chaos."
Because controllers are employed by the FAA, a federal agency, they are barred by law from striking, a prohibition that covers all federal workers. The union has paid little attention to the ban in past disputes; work stoppages have occurred. However, the nationwide strike now would be a serious threat to the union. Small and very far from being rich, it could be destroyed by heavy legal penalties. The union was fined $100,000 in 1978 after four days of air traffic slowdowns.
If necessary, it is prepared to take that risk. According to Robert Poli, PATCO's president, members feel "frustrated" and "angry" because of the FAA's lack of response to their demands after months of bargaining.
The White House could defuse an explosive situation by freeing the FAA to meet PATCO's demand for wage and benefits increases, but to do so would undermine administration efforts to reduce the federal budget and to hold down raises for other federal employees, including postal workers. This is not expected to happen. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said in Washington that the administration plans to take "a very strong stand on this."
An injunction against a controllers strike was issued in 1970 and, according to the federal judge who signed it, the prohibition remains in effect. Those who disregard it could face contempt charges. The White House could rely on this writ or, perhaps to be on surer legal grounds, go back to federal court either to bar the threatened walkout on June 22 or to seek an order directing strikers to return to jobs after a walkout begins.