Lessons from the PATCO strike

Regardless of how it ends, the confrontation between the Reagan administration and striking air traffic controllers is likely to go into labor history books as a glaring breakdown in government collective bargaining.

Studies will attempt to place the blame on government negotiators limited by official policies or on union bargaining committeemen unable to negotiate realistically in the face of very high expectations by their members.

On the surface, both sides appear at fault. The structure of government bargaining and the interrelationships between federal employees complicated negotiations. The specialized work of the air controller and thier grievances about job conditions and stress--many of which are legitimate--intensified bargaining problems. From the start of negotiations months ago, a very wide gap existed that neither side seemed able to bridge.

Sound collective bargaining requires compromises. The real stumbling block in the controllers' dispute has been the inability of the two parties to move away from polarized positions sufficiently to make an agreement possible.

Kenneth Moffet, acting head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service , said after talks broke down and the strike began, "This is a tough one. . . . I'm afraid this is going to last a long time."

The Reagan administration, he noted, wanted Robert E. Poli, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), and his union executive board to back down. Mr. Poli and the union, "riding high" because of the PATCO bargaining and strike solidarity, would not do so.

There is no apparent movement now to renew talks. In fact, with air controllers losing jobs and their union facing decertification, the legal bargaining relationship between the government and PATCO could be at an end. The controllers' contract with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expired March 15.

For a year or more before that date, the Carter administration foresaw that growing dissatisfaction among controllers indicated troubles ahead in 1981 bargaining. The FAA considered a strike or some other job action a "very distinct possibility."

Plans for coping with the controllers strike or slowdown were begun in January 1980. The FAA started drafting contingency plans for manning airport control towers with supervisory personnel. The Carter Justice Department prepared legal moves that included civil proceedings, court injunctions, contempt citations, criminal actions, fines, and steps to decertify PATCO as a union.

Clark H. Onstad, chief council of FAA under former President Jimmy Carter, said, "Incredibly detailed planning went on for more than a year because we just knew that a strike was going to happen."

Langhorne M. Bond, then head of the FAA, and Mr. Onstad said that they decided then that "the best way to handle such a situation was to let people know in advance exactly how we were going to operate. Predictability is important in a strike situation."

The FAA contingency plans were published in the Federal Register on Nov. 13, 1980, and letters to controllers warned of the penalty they could face -- including possible dismissal -- should they strike illegally.

Although the Reagan administration now is credited with a strategy in the controllers' dispute, most of the current administration's decisions have been based on the Carter administration's published "National Air Traffic Control Contingency Plan for Potential Strikes and Other Job Actions by Air Traffic Controllers."

PATCO negotiators delayed the start of bargaining while they sought unsuccessfully to free themselves by court moves from the strictures of federal bargaining, including the no-strike rule. When they went to the bargaining table, they put on it packaged demands with a total price tag exceeding $1 billion a year. They later cut the demands in half, bringing the cost down to $ 550 million. Meanwhile, FAA negotiators were limited by a directive from the administration to a settlement of no more than $40 million a year.

Wages were an issue for the controllers; they originally sought a settlement of $73,000 a year, then came down to $59,229, compared with $49,000 under their expired contract. They also demanded a 32-hour workweek, full retirement after 20 years' service regardless of age (FAA figures show 89 percent of all controllers leave jobs before the required 25-year service and 50-year retirement age as a result of medical disability), night and day pay differentials, and a wide range of improvement in work conditions. The FAA has estimated that the total demands would mean a 131 percent increase.

PATCO first set a June 22 deadline, but after a strike vote showed less than 80 percent supported a walkout, Mr. Poli negotiated past the midnight deadline to a settlement reached, he said, "with a gun to my head."

"It was," he said, "the best possible deal I could get," giving controllers some of the gains they sought but considerably less than their "must" demands for shortened worktime, earlier retirements, and a wage scale separate from and higher than that of other federal workers. Controllers angrily rejected the settlement by more than the 80 percent required for a walkout.

A contract rejection is not unusual. According to federal figures, about one tentative settlement in 10 is rejected. Most recently in major bargaining, the United Mine Workers (UMW) turned down a settlement and sent negotiators back to bargaining.

But unlike the UMW situation, there was no return to bargaining for the controllers. The union and the FAA merely got together for half an hour in which each reaffirmed its negotiating position. Thus the scene was set immediately for the strike foreseen more than a year earlier.

While the government's position, as it has evolved, is a polished-up version of the plans drafted during the Carter administration, the position reflects President Reagan's views of what should be done in a dispute involving government employees barred from striking.

While Mr. Reagan was governor of California, hundreds of state employees defied the state government by striking illegally. Governor Reagan warned strikers that they would be fired unless they returned to work in five days.The strike collapse.

The nation's air controllers either have forgotten or have chosen to ignore that precedent when they struck illegally.

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