If Congress approves strike-averting $39 million-a-year increase that Uncle Sam is willing to give air traffic controllers, the 17,000 aerial traffic cops will be paid more than most other federal workers, including many of their bosses.
The tentative 42-month contract between the militant Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization and the Federal Aviation Administration breaks lots of new ground. And it sets a precedent for the government to bargain directly with other white-collar feds whose pay and fringes previously have been non-negotiable items.
With the exception of the U.S. Postal Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority, federal agencies never have bargained with workers or unions over salaries or fringes. White-collar government salaries, which are supposed to follow industry wage patterns, are in fact set by the president. Congress determines such fringe benefits items as life and health insurance, premium pay, holidays and the amount of vacation. But faced with a midnight Sunday strike deadline, the FAA -- with some prodding from Congress -- has given administration support to legislation that would give the typical controller (now earning about $32,000 a year) 1981 wage increases of about $4,000. The pay rise would include the 4.8 percent that will go to other white collar civil servants (whose average salary is around $22,000) this October.
Here are the money items that FAA and PATCO tentatively have agreed to:
Controllers would get 42 hours pay for working a 40-hour week.
Elimination of the ceiling on premium pay (night, holiday, Sunday work) for controllers, and only controllers. Other federal workers would be subject to the $50,122.50-a-year pay limit.
An increase in the present 10 percent night differential for controllers to 15 percent.
Provision of a "retraining allowance" for controllers with five years consecutive service as controllers who want to qualify for other jobs.
All these items are subject to approval by PATCO's 14,000 members and cannot go into effect until after Congress approves them and President Reagan signs them into law. FAA officials, speaking for the White House, said they actively would support the changes.
A major question is what effect a PATCO-FAA settlement would have on federal workers who also have stressful jobs and/or provide vital services. They include customs agents, border patrol personnel, various law enforcement types, people in Social Security payment centers, sanitation workers, prison guards, hospital staffers and others whose absence could cause problems.
Strikes or the threat of a strike against the government are illegal. They are punishable by dismissal, a $1,000 fine and/or a year and a day in jail. Leaders of other federal unions said yesterday they are delighted with PATCO's breakthrough victory, and may take advantage of it themselves.
John Sturdivant, acting director of organization for the American Federation of Government Employees, said the PATCO settlement "is just great. Of course, the promise of support for legislation and getting legislation passed are two different things, but we are happy for them." He said it shows that a strong union "can make management sit down and negotiate . . . and it sends a message to labor and to the government." Commenting on the federal no-strike law, Strudivant said "the only illegal strike is an unsuccessful one."
Vincent Connery, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said he thinks federal workers will be "glad the controllers got what I'm sure they are entitled to . . . more power to them." Connery said he thought the settlement "should cause Congress to reconsider the inadequate 4.8 percent raise" targeted for other civil servants.
"My God, there is this pay cap when people are supposed to get wages comparable with the private sector. Comparability has been thrown out the window" by the government. "The sad thing," said Connery, whose union represents IRS agents and tax collectors, Federal Communications Commission personnel and workers at the Federal Elections Commission, "is that the powers that be only pay attention to people who have the power to smack them in the face."