Controller strike: searching for a way out

Is there a way out of the current impasse between the Reagan administration and striking air traffic controllers -- one that could bring these skilled employees back into the labor force?

This question takes on added urgency following the cancellation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of all flights between Europe and the East Coast of the United States.

The FAA took the action Monday after Canadian air traffic controllers, who guide transatlantic flights between North America and 30 degrees west longitude, refused to handle air traffic to and from the US. In some cases, flights en route from Europe were turned back midway across the Atlantic.

Norbert Owens, chief of the air traffic division for the FAA's eastern region , says that the cancellations will affect flights to and from Europe at airports in new York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington.

Despite this new twist to the nine-day-old strike, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) insists that there is a way out. PATCO president Robert Poli, conceding that he underestimated the firmness of the administration's reaction to the strike, says that "survival" must involve some "give" on both sides. PATCO general counsel Richard Leighton and former president John Leyden have suggested that the 12,000 striking controllers could be granted amnesty as part of an overall administration settlement.

But the administration's stance is that the strike was illegal and is over. US Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis has said that all participants will be dismissed except those who can prove that harassment kept them from meeting the President Reagan's back-to-work deadline.

Several labor relations specialists experienced in negotiation and arbitration have mixed reactions on whether a way out of the impasse can be found.

"I think if the administration really wants to find a face-saving way, it will," says Hervey Juris, professor of industrial relations at Northwestern University.

"I'm very discouraged about the prospects now," counters Charles Rehmus, dean of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labbor relations. "Neither the government nor the union approached this situation in a way that preserved any options for a graceful retreat."

Dean Rehmus faults Mr. Poli for calling a strike on two day's notice when he previously had pledged to negotiate until Labor Day. "He gave the government no opportunity to move or to think -- it seemed an almost deliberate move to prove how tough he could be," says the Cornell dean.

He also faults Mr. Reagan for "painting himself into a corner" on the issue and not delegating to aides early on the responsibility for the tough talk, leaving himself some room to maneuver. Dean Rehmus also criticizes the administration for having no "top notch" professional labor relations experts on board, even in the US Labor Department, who could have advised Reagan on a more deft handling of the situation.

Most experts queried think the wholesale ouster of striking controllers is still far from irreversible. They suggest that any number of things -- from the added clout of other unions deciding to participate in tandem strikes (so far there are few signs of this) to the effect that any serious deterioration in safety or airline service may have on passengers or laid- off airline employees -- could yet intensify public pressure to rehire the strikers.

"I believed from the beginning that the President was going to have to find a way out of this," notes Professor Juris, who blames both sides for immediately focusing on "right" and "wrong" rather than stressing settlement, which was in the practical interests of both.

"I think as more and more people are hurt by this economically over the long run, the administration will be forced to reconsider the issue -- the fact that the President is away [on vacation] for a month will make it easier."

Most labor experts agree that the administration now has the upper hand, and in that sense it can afford to be the more magnanimous.But they also understand the President's reluctance to set a precedent for other federal workers. Most queried agree that concessions will come only if very strong public pressure demands it.

"It [public pressure] could happen in any of several ways," says Harry Blaine , professor of labor and human resources at Ohio State University. "The worst would be if there were several [airline] crashes and the public became so outraged that it demanded a change. But there could certainly be something short of that that might force it -- like the deterioration of service to perhaps one- third of pre-strike levels."

But Herbert Northrup, professor of industrial-labor relations at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who worries that the union may resort to sabotage to try to force the issue, says he does not think the administration can afford to bend to striking controllers.

"I think we'll have a whole new labor force -- Northrup. "The controllers were asking for the right to set national wage policy, and granting anything approximating that would have opened the floodgates to other public employee wage requests. If the administration backs down, the signal would go out that this is something you can get away with."

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