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Clinton Lifts Ban on Fired Air Controllers

August 13, 1993|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a gesture meant to signify the end of 12 years of hostility between government and organized labor, President Clinton on Thursday lifted the ban on hiring air traffic controllers fired by former President Ronald Reagan when they joined an illegal strike.

The long-anticipated announcement enabled Clinton to keep a campaign pledge by overturning the controversial 1981 action, which heralded a more confrontational era between unions and government under Reagan and former President George Bush.

"We need strong, cooperative relationships between management and labor in this country," said Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, announcing Clinton's action. "This decision demonstrates how important changing the tenor of those relationships is to this Administration."

The immediate impact of the move is more symbolic than substantive. The Federal Aviation Administration has imposed a hiring freeze and does not plan to begin employing new controllers until next year. In addition, the number of such openings over the next decade is expected to be low. Nevertheless, union officials applauded the action.

"President Clinton has ended a sorry chapter in U.S. employment history and has charted a new path for the workplace of the future," AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland said.

Officials were unsure how many of the 11,400 fired controllers, most of whom moved on to other careers, would seek re-employment with the FAA. The National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., the union that now represents controllers and supports the Clinton decision, said the number could be as high as 3,000.

That figure was echoed by Bill Taylor, a former controller who keeps in touch with about 2,000 of his displaced colleagues through a phone hot line and a newsletter.

"This is not just a job, it's a profession and we can't practice our profession anywhere else," said Taylor, 50, who now works as an addiction counselor here. "It's like taking a nurse or a doctor out of their profession."

Taylor said a number of former controllers would be interested in resuming their careers to put in the years necessary to become eligible for government pensions.

But Gary Eads, the last president of the now-defunct Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, which organized the strike, said he doubts many would want to return to airport control towers.

"It's good news as far as getting that pall lifted off the people," said Eads, 49, who now owns a print shop in Woodbridge, Va. "But I don't think a significant number will go back."

The FAA, which employs 17,728 controllers, said it plans to begin hiring about 200 controllers a year for several years beginning in 1994. The openings are slow to occur because 80% of the current work force was hired after 1981. The agency does not expect significant numbers of retirements until 2006.

Those who lost their jobs in 1981 would have to compete with newly trained applicants for those positions, FAA officials said.

The Reagan firings followed a decade of demands by PATCO that the FAA improve computer equipment and training, raise benefits to compensate for stress, cut the workweek and increase salaries.

On Aug. 3, 1981, PATCO called on its 14,000 members to strike, an action prohibited by law for federal workers. Reagan quickly issued a back-to-work ultimatum. It was ignored by the union and two days later the government began sending out firing notices.

Even after the FAA had replaced most of the fired controllers with newly trained recruits, successfully breaking the union, those who struck were barred from taking any job with the FAA.

Many of the fired controllers later said they regretted striking and missed working in a profession that had been a source of pride. Some continued to work as air traffic controllers at private airstrips or in foreign countries and others stayed close to the industry by taking jobs with private airlines. But most were forced to find work in other fields.

After Thursday's announcement, the FAA installed a toll-free number, 800-960-0600, to answer questions from former controllers interested in applying for controller and other FAA jobs.

Some of PATCO's primary complaints are being echoed today by the union that replaced it. Spokesman Jeff Beddow said that, although the number of controllers has risen overall, there are about 1,500 fewer full-performance controllers today than there were before the strike, while air traffic has risen 28%. A full-performance controller is trained for every job in the control tower.

"We feel workplace conditions are not what they should be," Beddow said. "A lot of the equipment dates back to the 1950s."

Beddow was quick to add, however, that his union will not consider a strike.

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