The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Air Traffic Controllers Strike
JIM LEHRER [voice-over]: Air traffic controllers walked off their jobs this morning, triggering disruption in airline travel for others, the possibility of losing their jobs and going to jail for themselves.
LEHRER: Good evening. Striking air traffic controllers have until Wednesday to go back to work or be fired. They also face stiff civil penalties and possible criminal action for violating federal law which forbids government employees from strike actions. Nevertheless, the strike -- the first ever by federal employees in this country -- continues tonight. The controllers claim thus far 85 percent of its membership is participating. The Federal Aviation Administration says the figure is closer to 70 percent. Disruption in air travel varied. The large airports and the shorter flights were the hardest hit. In Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Washington, Los Angeles and other major cities, flights in and out were cut in half as FAA supervisory personnel helped man control towers and regional flight centers. The FAA estimated nationally that some 60 percent of all flights scheduled today took off, although most if not all were delayed. Six thousand in all were canceled. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis says safety is not being sacrificed -- a fact disputed by the striking controllers. They say supervisors are unqualified to safely do the job. It was President Reagan himself who issued the back-to-work-or-else ultimatum to the controllers. Here`s part of what he said this afternoon at the White House.
President RONALD REAGAN: Let me make one thing plain: I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike. Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union. I guess I`m maybe the first one to ever hold this office who is a lifetime member of an AF of L-CIO union. But we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line; it has to provide, without interruption, the protective services which are government`s reason for being. It was in recognition of this that the Congress passed a law forbidding strikes by government employees against the public safety. It is for this reason that I must tell those who failed to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they donnot report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated. End of statement.
LEHRER: Also, this evening a federal judge here in Washington is considering holding the controllers union in contempt of court for going on strike despite a temporary restraining order forbidding it. Tonight we attempt to sort out the conflicts that brought the situation to this point, and we also look at how and when it all might end. Robert MacNeil is off; Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in New York. Charlayne?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Jim, there are about 17,500 air traffic controllers in the country. Of that number, some 15,000 are union members. The controllers now earn an average income of $33,000 a year, and work a 40- hour week. The union`s original demands included a $10,000 raise for its members and a 32-hour work week. In its latest offer, the government held fast to a 40-hour week but proposed a wage and benefits package that would have increased the controllers` average scale to $39,000. Jim?
LEHRER: First, a news update on what`s happening. It comes from Thomas Love, who has been on the story from the beginning for the Washington Star. Is the strike action holding for the union, Tom?
THOMAS LOVE: It appears to be at this point; it`s a little too early to tell for sure.
LEHRER: What about this 85 percent the union claims, versus 70 percent the FAA claims?
Mr. LOVE: Well, each side wants it to look best for them, and it`s also too early to really tell. The strike only began at 7 o`clock local time this morning, and we haven`t even been through one full day of shifts yet.
LEHRER: Is there any reading yet on what effect the President`s ultimatum - - back to work in 48 hours, or else -- is going to take?
Mr. LOVE: Not at this point. This kind of reaction from the President was expected.
LEHRER: Is there any feeling on your part as to what effect it might have?
Mr. LOVE: I think it was already taken into account by the strikers. They knew the administration was going to take a very hard line with them, and I think that they thought there`s a good chance they might lose their jobs unless they could get amnesty after the whole thing is over.
LEHRER: Is there any question that the administration is serious about this? I mean, that the President says we`re going to fire them in 48 hours if they`re not back?
Mr. LOVE: I don`t think that there`s any question, and I don`t think there`s any question in the minds of the leaders of the controllers.
LEHRER: Same go for criminal action?
Mr. LOVE: Same goes for criminal action,
LEHRER: Your feeling is these people are prepared to go to jail?
Mr. LOVE: I think that those who have walded out are-- certainly realize they`re facing the very definite possibility.
LEHRER: How badly messed up is air travel so far? The information that came through the wires all day was rather confusing. Can you help sort out the confusion?
Mr. LOVE: The FAA -- the Federal Aviation Administration -- is operating as if they have about 50 percent of the capacity in the airways that they normally do. This is apparently about an arbitrary figure. They don`t know exactly how many people, obviously, are working. They don`t know what`s going to happen to reservations. But at this point, it`s operating a little bit more than half.
LEHRER: I see. Will the situation change on that, say, half basis -- based on how long the strike goes? In other words, if the strike goes another day are they likely to be able to maintain the 50 percent? Will it go up or will it go down, or do you know?
Mr. LOVE: Well, it would depend on whether more controllers stay off the job tomorrow, or more of them come back to work.
LEHRER: I see. Obviously. But what about the military controllers? They`re on standby. They`re coming to help, are they not?
Mr. LOVE: The-- as of last night, about 150 had been assigned to civil facilities. There`s a total of somewhere in the vicinity of 700 available to help the supervisors and non-striking controllers in their jobs.
LEHRER`. Do you get the feeling, based on the people you have talked to at the FAA, that they are preparing for a long haul here?
Mr. LOVE: Yes, I think they are.
LEHRER: The President has said there will be no negotiations as long as the union is on strike. What happens next, then, Tom? Where does the movement come, if at all?
Mr. LOVE: Unless the President backs down, which I think is very unlikely, the next move is up to the controllers.
LEHRER: And that would require them to back down.
Mr. LOVE: It would require them to back down.
LEHRER: When things came apart finally, late last night, how far apart were the union and the government?
Mr. LOVE: The government`s offer was in the vicinity of about S40 million a year over and above what the controllers would get through normal pay raises and changes for every civil servant. The controllers` package was someplace in the vicinity of $600 million, or perhaps a little bit more. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis pointed out that they wanted about 17 times what the government was willing to give.
LEHRER: I know that what was said -- and that was the reality; I mean, there was no give.
Mr. LOVE: That was reality. The government made some concessions, primarily in timing of the spending, but this morning Lewis said that it was still the basic $40 million package. It could have been a little bit more but if any more, it was a very little bit.
LEHRER: Thank you. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Among the groups supporting the government in its attempts to halt the strike is the Public Service Research Council, a citizen lobby concerned with public employee unions. The Council joined the government today with an amicus brief against the strike. David Denholm is the Council`s president. Mr. Denholm. why are you supporting the government`s position against the strike?
DAVID DENHOLM: Well, it`s really a question of who is going to control the size, cost and quality of government, and we believe that it`s up to the elected representatives of the people to make those decisions, and that the strike weapon puts into the hands of a very small special interest group the ability to dictate public policy. And that`s why we`re opposed to any strikes by public employees, but particularly where such a small group has such an overwhelming influence on all the others.
HUNTER-GAULT: What, specifically, did you ask for in your amicus brief?
Mr. DENHOLM: Well, our brief is to the point that the law requires the termination of people who strike against the government. And so what we`re asking the court is to order that any air traffic controller who strike`s be terminated.
HUNTER-GAULT: That is, fired.
Mr. DENHOLM: Yes.
HUNTER-GAULT: The administration is threatening to decertify PATCO, the union agent, as the bargaining agents for the controllers, as well as criminal sanctions and perhaps fines and things like that. Why is it so important for the administration to take such drastic action so quickly?
Mr. DENHOLM: Well, I think that they have a problem with this. You see, they --
PATCO -- agreed to the contract and then rejected it. And they are now faced with a very similar situation developing among postal workers. And so if the administration doesn`t act very firmly and very positively in this regard, they will find themselves in a similar situation a week hence or so with the postal contracts. But by acting in this way now they can discourage future activity of this type.
HUNTER-GAULT: You don`t think that it might cause further hardening of the positions instead?
Mr. DENHOLM: It might. But it`s really the place to do it rather than to take a soft line now and to encourage similar action by other groups.
HUNTER-GAULT: You said a few moments ago that one of the reasons you didn`t think this union should have the right to strike is because it`s so small and it dictates, you know, to the public sector and everything. Are there other reasons why the controllers should not have the right to strike?
Mr. DENHOLM: Yeah. I think that what you`re dealing with here is not just the question of the size of that union, but the whole question of any group depriving the public of what we consider to be a vital public service, and using the deprivation of that service as an economic weapon. But beyond that, if you were to give PATCO the things that it is demanding in its agreement, you would set a precedent for all of the other groups of federal employees. PATCO wants to get out from under civil service and into a separate system. And then you would have, say, FBI agents and customs agents and all sorts of other different groups of federal employees saying let`s not have civil service; let`s strike this deal for us and this deal there. And then Congress would be dealing year-round trying to settle the various claims of contending groups of federal employees. It would become an almost unworkable system.
HUNTER-GAULT: How long is your sense of how long this strike is going to go on? You heard what Mr. Love said; do you sense it`s going to be a long haul?
Mr. DENHOLM: Most strikes of vital public services last from three to five days. The typical firemen`s strike or policemen`s strike where it`s a-- where that type of public service -- goes from three to five days. I would imagine that if things go the way they are now, that the strike -- as far as the union is concerned -- will last for a very long time, and as far as the government`s concerned, will be over very shortly.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: On the other side is organized labor, which is supporting the controller union`s position. Lane Kirkland, president of the AF of L, today characterized President Reagan`s response as "brutal and repressive." That`s also pretty much how Kenneth Blaylock sees it. He`s the president of the American Federation of Government Employees union, which represents some 700,000 federal workers. He`s with us tonight from Chicago. Isn`t what the controllers are doing illegal, Mr. Blaylock?
KENNETH BLAYLOCK: Well, if you read the law technically, yes, it is. But on the other hand, Jim, if you review the laws that define methods of setting pay and working conditions for federal workers, there has been technical violation if not in word, actually in principle, of the laws of comparability that are supposed to determine the rates of pay and working conditions for federal workers.
LEHRER: You mean it`s a tit-for-tat situation? The government`s already-- you`re saying the government is already operating illegally toward the controllers?
Mr. BLAYLOCK: Well, I`m saying in principle, as far as violation of the principle of the law of comparability. What you have here is finally a loggerhead issue over collective bargaining and the rights of public workers versus their political employer, and we don`t have the necessary rules spelled out in law to resolve collective bargaining disputes with federal workers. In this case the employer happens to be the President, and the Congress of the United States has said we`re going to give you a certain amount and that`s it. Take it or leave it. If you don`t like it, then you`ve got no alternative. The employees in this case, not their union, but the employees -- knowing the risk that they run -- have said enough`s enough and we don`t have to take your alternative.
LEHRER: Well, do you think the President then is justified in firing them if they do not-- if they`re not back to work in 48 hours?
Mr. BLAYLOCK: No. I don`t think so. I think he`s totally, one, disregarding the public interest. If he fires the controllers, and some 85 percent of them are off the job, then what happens to air traffic and the public interest? He can fire them come Wednesday and it`s going to be a long time before air traffic`s back to normal. I think his responsibility, as well as the union`s responsibility, is to attempt to resolve the issue and get public service moving again. The ultimatum that he laid on-- on the union and the employees sure doesn`t reflect his stated background in labor relations as a union leader. He`s -- as has already been said -- he has placed the union and the employees in a position of backing off, or he`s placed himself in a position of backing off, and that`s going to make it very difficult to resolve the issue.
LEHRER: What about the basic point here -- the President spoke to it this afternoon; Mr. Denholm just pointed to it as well -- that government workers, like the controllers and like the people that you represent, are different than those in the private sector, and that they should not have the right to strike and thus disrupt public services?
Mr. BLAYLOCK: Well, if they`re different-- and I don`t necessarily subscribe to that because public employees are citizens of this country and they live in communities and send their people -- their kids -- to school in the community, and they`re having to survive in the economic atmosphere of today`s world. If you`re saying they`re different and that they should be willing to accommodate the needs of their family and base their standard of living on dedication to the public, then I think some unreasonable demands are being placed by the public, or at least the public officials.
LEHRER: What does your union plan to do, if anything, in terms of supporting the controllers` union?
Mr. BLAYLOCK: Well, I`m not at-- at this point in time, we`re not--? we haven`t made those decisions as to what we actually will do. Word has been passed to the-- to PATCO, by not only our union but, obviously, AFL-CIO, of which I`m a board member, in strong support of them in any way that they see that they need fit. They haven`t come forward and said what ways they would need that-- that type of assistance at this point. You`ve got basically, here, a labor relations dispute between employees and an employer. And the actions as taken at this point, are those things that labor laws were passed in this country to avoid in the private sector, and I think it`s time, you know, that the federal government as an employer come into the twentieth century. If federal workers are so different, and should not have the right to strike because of the concern for disrupting public service. I think we need to take a look at this administration`s proposal and efforts, and they`re already moving very rapidly based on their concept of relying on the private sector for services, and in their contracting out some $153 billion worth of federal work to the private sector. Well, once that goes on contract, if the workers strike against the contractor, it has the same effect as the controllers striking today directly against the government. So they they seem to be talking two different lines of thought there.
LEHRER: Thank you, Mr. Blaylock. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Whatever promises are made at the bargaining table eventually must pass muster on Capitol Hill. For a view from there, we go now to Congressman Barry Goldwater, Jr., Republican of California, and a member of the aviation subcommittee of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. Congressman Goldwater. will Congress support a settlement that goes beyond the $40 million that they`ve already agreed to?
Rep. BARRY GOLDWATER, Jr. (R-Calif.): I think it s quite clear that the Congress will more than likely not support any additional settlement package that takes us beyond the $40 million that was arrived at back on June 22nd. I would say that the mood of the Congress is totally against what is happening today, whereas back on June 22nd, when the committee that I served on was instrumental in bringing the two sides back together at the bargaining tower -- table -- at the last minute, which arrived at that agreement and subsequently rejected by the PATCO members. Today is not a good time for the air traffic controllers to be out on strike. Members of Congress are adjourning tomorrow after passing the President`s tax package, and they`re trying to get home. And when you start affecting a member of Congress`s travel, that`s not good. And many of them won`t forget when they come back after the break.
HUNTER-GAULT: But what about Mr. Blaylock`s point that the air traffic controllers are citizens who are trying to make it in today`s economic atmosphere?
Rep. GOLDWATER: Well, that`s true, but I suspect that so are many other members of the United States government who are civil servants. Tim McCarthy was shot down in a hail of bullets. He works for the Secret Service. He makes less than what the average pay is of the air traffic controllers. He has a stressful job, too. I`m sure he`d like higher wages and higher benefits. This is a question that must be resolved by the Congress and not by threats of strike and disruption of work, and particularly, safety. HUNTER-GAULT: is this move that the air traffic controllers have just taken, is that jeopardizing the package you`ve already agreed to?
Rep. GOLDWATER: I think it has to. There was about 50 senators and some 20 members of the House of Representatives who were key on-- on the key committees who sent a letter to every member of the the air traffic control organization saying, in essence, a strike would be damaging, not only to the economy, but to your cause. Do not expect Congress to be receptive to any demands negotiated by force. I think PATCO has drawn the lines, and unfortunately a majority of the Congress, in my opinion, anyway, would not be supportive of this activity.
HUNTER-GAULT: What about the move that the President himself is making? Would the majority of the Congress, including yourself, be supportive of that? Of those things he has said he will do?
Rep. GOLDWATER: Certainly it`s a guess on my part, but I think, again, the majority of the Congress would support the strong actions by our administrator, who is the President of the United States, in setting the tone and the mood for the American people against disruption of aviation safety.
HUNTER-GAULT: How much support is there in the Congress for removing PATCO as the bargaining agent for the union; in other words, decertifying it?
Rep. GOLDWATER: Well, that`s-- that`s, I think, a different question. When you get down into details as to what will or will not happen as a result of this strike, I don`t think I`m in a good position to judge specifics. All I can say is, the mood of the Congress is, I think, quite a bit up in arms, very angry about this, and I`m sure there`ll be some action taken by members of Congress as clearly spelled out, time and time again, either in public, in private letters, and in public hearings. The members of Congress, both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, made it very clear that they do not look in a great deal of favor on this kind of action by public employees.
HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you Jim?
LEHRER: Mr. Blaylock, you heard what the Congressman says, that the controllers have hurt their own case with Congress, and they probably have lost what support they had.
Mr. BLAYLOCK: Well, I would say that if the Congress is really that concerned, then it`s definitely time that they dealt with legislative methodology for resolving disputes of this nature in the federal sector, short of having to use a strike. They`ve left the employees with no other lever to resolve their problem. And if you look at the announcement from the White House just last week-- after they completed a survey in the private sector of pay rates which showed that employees in the skill levels of the controllers are some 18 and 19 percent behind their counterpart in private sector. And these figures were developed by the government itself. Yet they`re saying to the employees -- and I totally agree with the Congressman that there`s other employees in this same boat -- they`re saying to them, "You`re only going to get a 4.8 percent pay increase." disregarding the intent of the comparability acts which Congress passed. And the Congress is part of the problem, there`s no doubt.
Rep. GOLDWATER: Well, no question. This whole question of civil service and compensation has to be resolved by the United States Congress, and not in the street.
LEHRER: You don`t think this will -- this strike -- will get the attention of Congress?
Rep. GOLDWATER: Oh, it might serve to do that. But this is nothing new. We have this-- this whole question of comparability that goes back and forth. And sometimes the private sector is doing better than the public sector and then it switches sides. But a public servant comes on board to work for the government -- both federal, state and local government. They know the rules of the game coming in. They`re-- nobody`s forcing them to work for the government. Because they are prohibited from having the same freedoms as, perhaps, a worker in the private sector, theoretically, he`s to be compensated for that. A little better retirement program, a little better medical program and, in most cases, either comparable or higher pay. Now, these public servants sign that agreement when they come on board.
LEHRER: Mr. Blaylock, you went in with your eyes wide open.
Mr. BLAYLOCK: Well, the recent studies made by the office of personnel management show that, in fact, federal workers do not lead, and have not led, private sector employees. Only in the area of retirement, and when you look at total compensation, it shows federal workers, if you count retirement, some 4 percent out front in that particular area. But wouldn`t you think, Jim, that after 200 years of the federal government being in existence. Congress would have dealt with the issue of setting a methodology to determine pay for federal workers. Now, the Congressman says it should be dealt with in the halls of Congress, and I totally agree with that, but 200 years is a pretty long time for Congress to be shifting a responsibility aside, wouldn`t you think?
LEHRER: Mr. Denholm, what`s your view on that?
Mr. DENHOLM: The methodology is 200 years old, and it`s an excellent one. and that is that we elect the people to make certain decisions. And those decisions rest with members of Congress -- not decisions about setting up a new method under which the union can obtain more access and or, shall we say, control of the process, but a decision about the size and the cost and quality of government. That`s why you elect people like this. He`s responsible for the decision, and what the union is saying, set up a method so we can take some of his power away.
LEHRER: Is that what you`re saying, Mr. Blaylock?
Mr. BLAYLOCK: No, I`m not saying that we should set up a method. I`m simply saying if you subscribe to the philosophy, which in some ways I do, that there should be methods of resolving these type of problems without strikes, which does have impact on the public. And I`m saying that`s the responsibility of Congress, the responsibility of the union leaders, and to this point, we have not been able to get Congress to face that responsibility so these problems could be resolved without the method of strikes.
LEHRER: I see. Finally, in just a minute or two we have left, back to you, Tom Love. First of all, you heard the projection, now, from Mr. Denholm, that this strike will probably last three to five days, at least from the government`s standpoint. What do you think?
Mr. LOVE: I think that-- I have no way of knowing -- but I would guess that a number of the controllers who are out today will probably be back by the end of the week. Just how many, we have no way of knowing, but they have mortgages and kids in school, and braces -- everything like the rest of us -- and when those-- they see those paychecks stopping, I think a lot of them are going to be back on the job.
LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mr. Blaylock? That the President`s threat, no matter how abhorrent you think it is, is really going to make an impact, and some of these folks are going to come back to work?
Mr. BLAYLOCK: Well, I`ve got no way of knowing, you know, what the impact will be on the employees themselves. I do know that the employees was very much aware of the possibility of what`s happening now prior to making that personal decision. I think, again, the responsibility of the President and the union is to get back to the table and try to address the problem, not to try to force a winner or a loser in this situation. The public`s going to lose.
LEHRER: All right, Mr. Blaylock in Chicago, thank you. We have to leave it there. Good night, Charlayne.
HUNTER-GAULT: Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you, here. And we`ll see you tomorrow night. I`m Jim Lehrer; thank you and good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Air Traffic Controllers Strike
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- Episode Description
- This episode features a discussion on the Air Traffic Controllers Strike. The guests are Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Thomas Love, David Denholm, Barry Goldwater, Kenneth Blaylock. Byline: Jim Lehrer
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Air Traffic Controllers Strike,” 1981-08-03, NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 28, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-5t3fx74m0z.
- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Air Traffic Controllers Strike.” 1981-08-03. NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 28, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-5t3fx74m0z>.
- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Air Traffic Controllers Strike. Boston, MA: NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-5t3fx74m0z