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Air traffic controllers' pact at stake; their union's future could be, too

The recent contract settlement that averted a nationwide strike by air traffic controllers may be in jeopardy as union members vote to ratify or reject terms that are far short of what they sought in negotiations with the government.

At the same time, the future of the controllers' small, highly professional union could be at stake. In a situation that is not unique to them, these professionals do not want to surrender any degree of control over their bargaining to far stronger unions of nonprofessional workers. But they are caught in a David-and-Goliath struggle and there are growing suggestions within the union for steps to strengthen bargaining power even if it should mean a merger.

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The Professional Air Traffic Controller Organization (PATCO) executive board, worried about hundreds of telephone calls, angry letters, and Mailgrams opposing the tentative agreement, met over the weekend to consider whether to recommend approval of the pact despite the objections.

Ratification ballots will be mailed this week. The poll of PATCO's 14,800 members is expected to take about two weeks. If the contract terms are rejected by a simple majority, the union will call for renewed negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration and the strike threat will be renewed.

Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, testifying before a House subcommittee June 25, said the adverse reaction in the union should not come as a surprise since "whenever you wind up a negotiation, there's a great deal of emotionalism, and the immediate reaction on either side can be somewhat adverse." But he warned that the government was not prepared to offer more than the June 22 se ttlement contained.

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