The executive board of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) unanimously urged union members yesterday to over whelmingly reject a tentative contract agreement that union President Robert Poli reached with the federal government 11 days ago.
The board's strongly worded resolution followed widespread reports of stiff opposition to the contract's terms among the union's 14,800 members and renewed concerns of a controllers' strike that would paralyze commercial flights around the country. Poli was one of the nine executive board members to recommend rejection of the contract.
In response, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said yesterday that the controllers should not think they could obtain more concessions by rejecting the package.
"In an already ailing economy," he said, "we do not want a costly strike. But at a time when the president and Congress are working hard to achieve economic recovery, neither can we agree to an inflationary contract that would be patently unfair to the taxpayers and to other federal workers."
The agreement represents an 11.4 percent overall increase for controllers, Lewis said, more than twice what the average federal employe can expect to receive.
Ballots are to be sent to union members Wednesday. Results are expected at the end of the month, union spokeswoman Marcia Feldman said.
If members ratify the contract, Congress must approve it. If members reject the contract, union leaders would be expected to ask for more talks with the government. "It's quite conceivable there'd be a new strike deadline," Feldman said yesterday.
Yesterday's resolution, approved at a meeting in Chicago, said the 42-month contract agreed upon by union President Poli and the Federal Aviation Administration -- the controllers' employer -- "does not address the fundamental issues important to the air traffic control profession."
The tentative agreement would give the controllers 42 hours' pay for 40 hours' work, an increase in nighttime pay differential from 10 percent to 15 percent, premium pay without regard to the current $50,112 ceiling on Civil Service pay and a retraining allowance of 14 weeks' salary for certain members who are required to retire for medical reasons.
The cost to the federal government would be about $40 million in the first year, Lewis said yesterday.
The executive board comprises the union's seven regional vice presidents, Poli and Executive Vice President Robert E. Meyer, all of whom are full-time union employes. Union local presidents from most of the country's approximately 450 control facilities went to Chicago to hear their views.
When the recommendation was read aloud, cheers and cries of "Strike, strike, strike" went up from controllers, United Press International reported. Controllers shook their fists and cheered for about two minutes, according to UPI.
Two weeks ago, airlines prepared emergency plans to cut back flights by about three-quarters if the controllers went on strike. However, the walkout was averted when negotiators reached agreement in time to avert the work stoppage, set for 7 a.m. June 22.
As federal employes, controllers are forbidden by law to strike. In the hours before the strike was to begin, about 75 percent of PATCO's members voted to strike, despite the threat of civil and criminal court action. PATCO's rules, however, require an 80 percent vote for a strike.
Poli had opened the talks with a request for a $770 million wage and benefits package. Controllers have argued that the responsibilities and pressures of their work make them unique federal employes, deserving of special pay and working conditions.
Soon after the tentative agreement was reached, reports began circulating that many union members were prepared to reject it. Union spokeswoman Feldman said PATCO headquarters in Washington has received several hundred calls and visits expressing dissatisfaction with the accord.
Much of the opposition has centered on the contract's 40-hour work week -- the controllers wanted a 32 hour week -- and its provisions for raises. The average controllers would get about a $4,000-a-year raise, while the union had sought a $10, 000 increase.
Among the opponents is Jim Stakem, an official of Local 204 at the air traffic control facility in Leesburg, Va. Stakem predicted the local's 405 members would reject the contract.
In addition to the shorter week, he said, local union members favored unconditional retirement after 20 years' service. The agreement would allow 20-year retirement only for those 5- years of age or older, he said.
"It's just not safe that you keep somebody on the sector when you could have a much better controller," Stakem said.