Robert E. Poli, president of the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, visited a jailed union leader in Fairfax yesterday and assured him that "we are not losing -- we are winning" the strike.
In front of about 50 reporters sausaged into a small room in the Fairfax County Jail, Poli embraced Steven L. Wallaert, who was jailed Wednesday after telling a federal judge in Alexandria he intended to stay on strike. Wallaert, president of PATCO Local 291 in Norfolk, was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
Poli told Wallaert he was the "symbol of every controller in the country."
"I assure you," Poli said. "Put our people in shackles, put them in jail, we will not go back to work."
Said Wallaert: "I'm proud to be a PATCO member."
Poli repeated his warning that the strike has jeopardized air safety across the United States.
"This system is about to collapse," Poli said. "The people who are working now are exhausted -- they can't keep this pace up."
Added Wallaert: "The administration is playing a Russian roulette game [with air safety] and so far it's been hitting on empty chambers."
Poli compared the jailings of Wallaert and four union leaders in Kansas City with the current labor situation in Poland.
"They don't even do that in Poland," he said. "It's pretty ironic that [the American government] can support [Polish] people striking against the government and put [American] people in jail here."
Wallaert said he felt tired but was all right: "Right now I'm a celebrity" among the inmates.
After the meeting, Poli addressed reporters and striking controllers outside the jail.
"They can't run this country without 13,000 controllers, and that's the bottom line," Poli told the cheering union members.