Unions squirm at Reagan hard line on Patco

Union officials, keeping a close watch on the air controllers' strike, are showing a growing concern over the possible effects of President Reagan's hard-line labor policies.

Members of the AFL-CIO executive council and presidents of unions meeting in Chicago Aug. 6 affirmed their support for the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (Patco) in its showdown with the federal government, but many of them talked frankly of the implications for the US organized labor movement.

Union leaders see these problems ahead:

* Public employee unions are afraid precedents will be set for city and county governments when employees strike.

* Unions in the private sector, particularly those looking ahead to contract bargaining in 1982, fear that private employers -- already turning more conservative in their approach to unions -- might now be encouraged to reflect the Reagan position and negotiate more stubbornly.

* AFL-CIO unions with important legislation awaiting action on Capitol Hill after the midsummer recess see new problems ahead as many senators and House members react against Patco's defiance of the government.

Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO's president, denounced the Reagan administration stance as "strike breaking" and "union busting." But the federation's executive council limited its support of the walkout to a resolution of support and an hour's picketing at Chicago's O'Hare airport.

Individually, the members of the council and union presidents were unanimously angry at Mr. Reagan's tactics but reluctant to back the Patco walkout -- illegal under federal law. Many apparently felt that the controllers , no matter how valid their dissatisfaction with the bargaining, had brought on potentially serious problems for all labor by striking without first seeking a compromise settlement with the government.

Douglas Fraser, president of the United Automobile Workers, said the controllers' strike threatens "massive damage to the labor movement." William W. Winpisinger, head of the International Association of Machinists, agreed that a strike at this time when labor is under attack from conservative forces may have "extremely critical" consequences.

Leaders of public-employee unions feel even more directly threatened by the adamant Reagan position that government employees who strike illegally must forfeit their jobs, face fines, and perhaps serve jail sentences.

Many states follow the federal pattern and bar public employees from striking. Up to now, state laws generally have been loosely enforced, although fines have sometimes been imposed and some strike leaders have gone to jail.

Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, worries that the Reagan administration's tough policies, if successful, will result in a major assault on public-employee unions. He said in Chicago that "take it or leave it" bargaining by the federal negotiators might be backed by warnings that the full might of the government would be used should employees strike.

"We could be in big trouble," Mr. Wurf said.

The strike has brought labor leaders even closer together in opposition to the Reagan administration, fueling plans for stepped-up political action next year and in 1984. Mr. Winpisinger said that the Reagan tactics have made him "so mad I could scream at this administration." The likehood is that labor generally will be doing just that.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.