How can an administration ostensibly wedded to the idea of fiscal responsibility take such risks with the health of the nation's air transportation industry? Almost two weeks after the strike started, the airlines were still minimizing the impact of the job action. Yet they admit they are losing some $20 to $35 million a day as a result of the loss of public confidence in air safety.

For his part, the president remains stiff-necked and unwilling to act to bring the sides back to the bargaining table. When the public learns that replacing the striking controllers could cost over $100 million in training alone, and take more than three years, it may begin to question the president's sense of economics.

But the real enigma is the president's "law and order" attitude about the strike itself. He doesn't seem to see the conflict between his support for apparently "illegal" strikes by Polish workers and the actions of the controllers.

It seems he would recognize that this nation's history is replete with examples of heroic movements that have used civil disobedience to counteract restrictions against the liberties that we hold dear.

The president ignores these examples when he insists that his options are limited to carrying out his threats to fire the workers because of the statute barring government employee strikes. Yet those prohibitions are just vestiges of an archaic attitude still evident in the very term "civil servant." It was a mere 60 years ago that "yellow dog" contracts (barring workers who signed them from joining a union) were found illegal. The oath cited by the administration as barring strike action is just a variation on that theme with a form number from the Office of Personnel Management in place of the hated nickname it earned in labor's early struggles.

The record is full of examples of actions by chief executives who realized that hardline punishment of civil disobedience rarely achieves the results the president hopes for.

For 30 years, government unions operated only at the sufferance of the government -- and only as long as we remained docile. For another 17 years, our activities were confined by an executive order that was good only as long as the president did not tear it up. It was not until 1978, with the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act, that our existence and rights as unions were guaranteed by law.

Even then, government challenged the authority of the act to avoid accepting the intent of its labor relations provisions, which was to balance the powers and responsibilities of labor and management in the federal government.

At each point, as we have pushed back so-called "management rights" so jealously guarded by presidents, we have proven that we can and do act responsibly and we have established that there is no basic difference between public workers and our private counterparts.

The argument that public employment carries with it some inherent obligation against striking is even more absurd when you consider how many private corporations with government contracts now operate on federal facilities.

Throughout government, small groups of public workers provide vital services both to the public and to multi-billion-dollar industries. The importance of those services generally goes unnoticed except in the breach -- as in the airline industry today.

A far more reasonable solution to the public employee strikes is to equalize the two sides. Recognize the rights of public employees -- not only their right to strike, but their right to deal with issues relating to their jobs both at the collective bargaining table and through political activity.