The strikers and Mr. Reagan

President Reagan's ultimatum to the air traffic controllers could hasten an outcome seen by some who are familiar with their union: a frittering away of the strike as individual controllers decide to break ranks and return to work. In that event the administration might be able to respond with some sort of negotiation to save face all around.

As things stood at this writing, union leadership remained adamant, looking for the government to find a "middle ground," though Mr. reagan had threatened the firing of members who did not get back on the job within 48 hours.

The situation obviously calls on the skills of collision avoidance in labor relations as well as in the airport towers manned by temporary personnel. This means no let-up in good-faith efforts to resolve the situation through the anticipated exchange of messages even though the government declared it would not negotiate during the strike. At the same time the administration has to enforce the laws against striking by federal employees. And Congress, which will have to provide the funds for any settlement, needs to be prepared to act justly and expeditiously when the time comes.

Without swift conciliatory progress, the controllers' union could bring on its own demise.Even if Mr. Reagan fails in his attempt to impound its strike fund, it does not have the finances to sustain a long illegal strike under heavy government fines. It brings on government actions such as the immediate effort to have it decertified as a bargaining agent.

The union could make a virtue of necessity by announcing a dramatic unilateral end to the strike in the interest of the public. Then it might expect not amnesty for its lawbreaking, which the Reagan administration has foreclosed, but some kind of reciprocal gesture toward reaching a settlement.

The controllers do have some goals worth serious consideration, such as a work week shorter than the standard 40 hours for federal employees and provisions for early retirement. They cite a number of other countries with shorter hours. They argue that the pressures of their jobs warrant reduced hours both for their own good and for maintaining top performance for the good of the public. The government has already agreed to wages that in effect pay overtime for the hours between a 36-hour and 40-hour week. Perhaps a compromise 36 hours could be reached instead of the 32 hours asked for by the union and requiring that much more personnel.

It seems a fact that most controllers find it difficult to remain more than ten or fifteen years at this job, and it is so specialized as to offer little preparation for different employment. They are somewhat like athletes capitalizing on brief careers. At the same time their skills are limited and repetitively exercised. They do not need college degrees nor are they called upon for the creative tasks of some other jobs.

The question is how their particular combination should be evaluated against other jobs for extra pay. Now they earn from about $20,000 to about $50,000. Their package asks for a top of about $10,000 more.

The government has offered to let the union redistribute the benefits in a $ 40 million or slightly higher package. Certainly the union is unlikely to gain many times that amount, not while Mr. Reagan is winning public and congressional applause for his swift and forceful reaction. Members must feel very strongly, to go to the point of defying the law. Yet the collision they have invited can be avoided -- if all sides keep the public interest as much in mind as those controllers who do so much to keep the skies safe and traffic mo ving when they are on the job.

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