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Air controllers, US approaching new showdown

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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.

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