The overwhelming rejection by air traffic controllers of a tentative $39.3 million settlement with the Federal Aviation Administration could bring on a showdown with the Reagan administration and Congress.
The controllers' union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO), announced July 29 that members had voted 13,495 to 616 to turn down contract terms reached as a strike deadline approached on June 22.
Although the union has not set a new strike deadline, controllers are demanding a settlement before Labor Day and say they will leave their jobs if a "satisfactory" contract is not reached by that holiday weekend -- with its end-of-summer peak air travel.
The 95.3 percent rejection of the settlement poses problems for the administration. The government, through the FAA, took a strong position in June bargaining with the controllers, making it clear then that the near-$40 million was as high as the administration would go.
Lacking the 80 percent strike vote support that PATCO policy requires, Robert E. Poli, the union's president, says he took "the best possible deal I could get ," the $39.3 million settlement. "They [government negotiators] had me at 3:30 a.m. with a gun at my head," he says.
Later, sensing the anger within the rank and file over the terms, Mr. Poli and the PATCO executive board urged the membership to turn down the settlement. The nearly unanimous rejection has reinforced the union negotiators at the bargaining table. They can go back into bargaining with considerably more power.
The administration's problem is how to meet the new power -- carrying out Mr. Poli's analogy, how to reload its gun. It has reaffirmed that it does not intend to put more money into a settlement, although it will bargain on changes in the way the money will be spent on wage increases and benefits.
It is not likely that PATCO will find this acceptable. Its unmet demands include a wage scale separate from and higher than that of other federal workers , a 32-hour workweek, and retirement after 20 years on the job. Its original price tag on these further gains ranged as high as $575.8 million a year. Although a drastic scaling down is possible in renewed contract talks (with demands to be focused more narrowly on a shortened work week), the union's bottom figure will not be anywhere near the government's $40 million maximum.
The probability is a quick stalemate that would force the administration to consider new alternatives to the pressures it used earlier. Its problem is: What can it do that it did not do before?
In the private sector, the Taft-Hartley Act can be invoked to bar a union walkout for at least 80 days, but the law does not apply to government workers. Federal employees already are barred by statute from strikes against the government. Controllers were warned in June of the consequences of an illegal walkout. The warnings is still stand.
Some in the administration feel that the only real alternative now is to let an illegal controllers' strike occur and to act against it sternly in federal court. A writ barring illegal strike action, handed down in a dispute several years ago, is still in effect and could be invoked immediately for heavy day-to-day fines that would quickly strain PATCO's treasury. Strikers would face a threat of lost jobs, fines, and other penalties. The union could also lose its bargaining rights.
The possibility of such a crackdown caused PATCO's rank and file to waver when it sought a strike vote in June; hardly 75 percent voted to strike. There has been a significant change since then. PATCO officials says "controllers now see that the only way to get anything is through a strike."
Meanwhile, there is growing sentiment in Congress for moves against the union if controllers strike. Fiftyfive senators warn they will press government "national emergency" action if air service is disrupted. Members of the Senate and House also warn PATCO that Congress, which must approve funds for FAA, will not be receptive to "demands negotiated by for ce."