President Reagan made his first conciliatory gesture yesterday toward the air controllers he fired last August as he opened a drive to forge better relations between his administration and organized labor.
In a meeting with the leadership of the Teamsters union at the White House, Reagan mentioned that he is considering rescinding an order that no fired controllers be hired for any federal job for three years, according to a statement released by the White House.
That move could be a first step toward allowing some of the 11,000 fired controllers to regain jobs in the nation's undermanned airport control towers, but that would apparently come only after a period of bargaining with organized labor.
White House officials who know that Reagan's tough stand in firing the controllers after they defied a law forbidding public employes to strike is very popular around the nation stressed yesterday that Reagan is not opening the door now to giving some of the strikers back their old jobs.
"You ask me whether he is thinking of putting them back in the towers. No he is not considering that," David Gergen, White House communications director, said.
"There has been no change in the president's fundamental position regarding air traffic controllers," the White House statement said.
A representative of the controllers said the union would have a problem if the president is proposing selective rehiring because its position is that all controllers must be taken back. "The only thing that's unambiguous about the White House statement is that it is a clear movement in a positive direction. It's better than them saying under no circumstances will they rehire, which is what they have been saying in the past."
Reagan will discuss future treatment of members of the now-defunct Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) again today with President Lane Kirkland and other leaders of the AFL-CIO, who have also been invited to the White House in the effort to improve the president's chilly relations with labor. Members of the labor federation have been telling reporters that the PATCO issue is at the top of their agenda for their meeting with the president.
In addition to Reagan's desire to improve his relations with the AFL-CIO, the president is under some economic pressure to do something about the nation's airline industry.
The air controller system is 12 to 18 months away now from being able to handle the load it carried before the strike, federal officials estimate. Corporate jets are almost shut out of the system because of their low priority, and commercial airlines are having trouble generating capital in a recession while restricted to a reduced flight schedule. The airlines' hard times will affect Boeing, the giant commercial aircraft manufacturer, which has three new models under development.
Transportation officials are known to have been studying ways to rehire about 3,000 of the fired controllers, the number they believe is needed to speed restoration of the full controller system, but these exploratory studies have had no approval at top levels of government. Reagan said Aug. 5 when the administration began firing controllers that "I'm sorry and I'm sorry for them. I certainly take no joy out of this . . . .Our position is irreversible."
Polls found that firing the controllers was one of the most popular moves Reagan made in the first nine months of his administration.
Reagan said that before he makes any decision he wants to talk to Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis who is now in Tokyo.
He added that his first responsibility is to the roughly 2,000 controllers who defied their union and crossed picket lines to work long hours and keep planes flying.