One of the difficulties about the air controllers' strike is that discussion of it is too easily reduced to stories of how someone narrowly missed death or permanent injury in the fog over La Guardia. Or even worse, missed his dentist's appointment, which is a pity. The possible threats to travelers safety and their convenience is obviously important. But the real public issue is the nature of such a labor dispute.
The incovenience to the relatively small proportion of the population which flies is not a crucial matter. Anyone can avoid the danger to life or limb simply by choosing not to fly. But a strike of well paid, middle-class, highly skilled workers, employed by the government, raises some knotty questions. So does the response of the government in a free country to such a strike.
The administration has not yet found evidence of communist, Trotskyite or anarchist influence in the logs of the air controllers. It is true that when one read that the government had considered using AWACS aircraft in the strike, one wondered why it had not sent F16 bombers in against the strikers in the first place, and have done with it. But it has played roughly enough with the workers to cause some disquiet.
The comparisons which one hears and sees with the Polish government's attitude toward the strikers there are not perverse. The comparisons should not be pushed too far. But the percentage of the total work force employed by federal, state and local governments in the United States is now very high, and it is not going to be significantly reduced by the present efforts to cut back the role of government.
This is true also of other countries which are technically advanced and so highly organized. If government employes are not permitted to strike, then the freedom of large numbers of people in our democracies is seriously limited, and it is not fanciful to wonder when other freedoms will be restricted. Freedom of speech can be as logically denied to government workers as the right to strike.
The action of the administration against the air controllers shows how careful conservatives must be in claiming that they are opposed to government interference in the lives of private citizens. For one may legitimately ask if government workers are private citizens, a question which is difficult to answer when asked about the police, but then can as clearly be asked also about nurses or firemen or air controllers.
But that is not all. The increase in the number of government employes is preponderantly an increase of white-collar workers. Government today is, by and large, a service industry. Much government work demands specific technical and even professional skills. Technology means that nurses are more than thermometer readers, and policemen have to be more than the friendly cops on the beat.
There is also a whole range of scientists or high-tech technicians in all kinds of government employment or in some part-time relationship with government. As our societies become more complex, it is less and less the manual workers who can throw a wrench in the works, but professional workers or technicians. It is people in long white coats and not blue overalls who are in a position to be today's Luddites.
When the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was at its height in Britain, the most severe tension was that between government and its scientific workers. Even brilliant scientists, needed by government, were in the movement's vanguard. Discontent among white-collar workers -- such as that among the air controllers -- will increasingly threaten orderly government. It is that discontent which is noticeably growing.
It is the people who did not used to strike who are increasingly engaged in the most disruptive labor disputes: teachers, nurses, doctors and police officers, and even, as has been said, baseball players. Whether in private or government employment, it is these whose backs are now up. That some are well and even highly paid -- even outrageously so, in the case of the baseball players -- surely points to the fact that their grievances are strong.
Offices or schools or hospitals may not be as unpleasant as mills and factories. The employers may even provide soft lighting and indoor plants. Huge eucalyptuses stand in the corners of offices which are now described as "suites." Wisps of ivy trail over the desks of secretaries who are not to be jarred by calling them such. Casual dress is permitted, and there is group insurance.
Yet it is against their work conditions that the white-collar workers are most likely to be striking. No one seems to have noticed that the computerized technology in white-collar jobs is more and more creating all the more disagreeable features of the assembly line. The yards and yards of printouts in white-collar work are as enslaving as the assembly line was to the factory worker in Chaplin's "Modern Times."
Anyone who has been mystified by the difficulty which accountants seem to have today in getting a chek out of a computer must -- once he has curbed his impatience -- have wondered how badgered the accountants must be in trying to feed the simple request for a remittance into so spiteful a machine in the first place. "Where is my check?" -- the wild cry of the freelancer into the void -- "It is in the process."
If the process is tying up the check, no wonder it is holding up the mail, and no wonder it is mixing up the workers. There is the process, and they go out of their minds. Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your brains. That is the cry behind much of the discontent of the white collars. They have to be skilled, but their skills are then not autonomous, they are always in the process.
Process is exactly the equivalent today of the assembly line. the air controllers have not received much sympathy for their complaints about the pressure of their work. Too much stress has been placed on the particular strains of their jobs. The simple fact is that in a more acute form they have to endure a pressure which is felt much more generally.
But then a further anxiety is added to the life of the white-collar worker. If the computer seems to be so independent -- if the check makes its invisible way through the process, untouched by human hand until it is grabbed by the starving payee -- then is the worker not replaceable? If the supervisors can run the show, then who cannot do the job? It is troubling if bosses begin to think that they can do a job.
So when one reads that white-collar workers are disturbed about their status, that they are beginning to organize in unions as never before, that those unions are becoming more militant and just pigheaded, that the right to organize is becoming almost more a white-collar than a blue-collar cry, then one must consider that insecurity is a likely cause.
Status may seem a rather high-flown and artificial thing to be worried about. But concern with status is a symptom of insecurity. There is also the need for respect. White-collar workers, simply because they are not on starvation wages, will be prickly about respect. Nurses who now perform some of the tasks which had to wait for the doctor in his rounds will feel a right to more respect as well as more pay.
Even baseball players will now be found exercising their brains as well as their brawn. Teachers are understandably more and more confused about their functions: So much is put on them, in one way; in another, so little is asked. Doctors can feel put-down by the ever more inaccessible administrators who increasingly control the hospital. Air controllers do not enjoy the visibility of pilots.
The secretary of transportation admitted that it is "probably a legitimate charge" that the Federal Aviation Administration is "a bad boss to work for." When government is so preponderantly an employer of white-collar workers, it ought to worry about its own character as a boss in general, for it has to look only to private enterprises to see that the white-collar revolt is in the making in society at large.Boy, is it in process!