Air traffic controllers are subject of trial balloon


February 05, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

All his life Mike Finucane had worked hard and played by the rules.

He graduated from high school, went into the Air Force, learned a good trade, got out and became an air traffic controller at O'Hare Airport in Chicago.

"Busiest in the world," he said. "In the radar room, all dark except for the glow of the screens, you with 15 or 20 planes under your control. Oh God, I remember those days."

Those days ended on Aug. 3, 1981, when PATCO, Finucane's union, went out on strike and Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers.

The public was on Reagan's side. The controllers had taken an oath not to strike, and now they had violated it.

Reagan banned them from ever being re-hired. But that was more than 11 years ago, and Bill Clinton is now considering lifting the ban.

And though Clinton chiefly wants to make a goodwill gesture to )) organized labor, it appears the controllers are needed:

Before the strike, there were 16,200 air traffic controllers in America, 13,205 of them full-performance controllers, which means they could handle any job.

Today, there are 14,700 air traffic controllers and only 10,500 of them are classified full-performance.

Nobody knows how many of the fired controllers would return if they could, but some have estimated that that as many as 3,000 would do so.

Mike Finucane became a bartender after he was fired and then did construction work. In 1988, to his amazement, he was offered a job as an air traffic controller for the Army at Fort Drum, New York.

The military quietly has been hiring fired controllers for years and for some pretty good reasons: They are experienced, they have already gone through security checks and they need only a few months of new training compared to the years it takes to train a novice.

Today, there are 20 air traffic controllers at Fort Drum, and all of them used to belong to PATCO.

I called Finucane yesterday and asked him whether he thought they might go back to their old jobs.

"I think most of us think that its about time the ban was lifted, whether we go back or not," he said. "None of us came out of this smelling like roses. We all got hurt."

But lifting the ban is no sure thing. I read Finucane an exchange between Dee Dee Myers, White House press secretary, and reporters at a recent press briefing:

Reporter: "But didn't -- I mean, PATCO -- those guys broke the law."

Myers: "Well, I just think it's something that became a symbol of the relationship between the federal government and labor unions during the 1980s. I think the president is committed to changing the tenor of that relationship. But no final decisions have been made."

Reporter: "He's committed to changing the tenor by excusing illegal activity?"

Myers: "No, I don't think anybody wants to excuse illegal activity. But again, I think he's looking at it."

Reporter: "Why resurrect that ghost from 10 years ago? I mean, where does that come from?"

Myers: "I don't know."

When I finished, Finucane was silent for a moment and then said: "So some people still hate us."

The reporters were just trying to raise the questions that ordinary people would raise, I said, but yes, I guess some people do still hate you. And some will say you're like Zoe Baird: You broke the rules and want to get away with it.

"They pardoned Richard Nixon," Finucane said. "They pardoned the Vietnam draft dodgers -- and, you know, 95 percent of the fired controllers were Viet vets -- and Bush just pardoned the Iran-contra guys.

"But, God almighty, I guess we were given life sentences. If we had shot somebody, we'd be back on streets today."

If you were offered your old job back, you would have to take an oath not to strike, I said. Could you do that and mean it?

"Sure," Finucane said. "I had to take that oath for this job and, you know, that first oath, I didn't even remember taking it. I'm not making excuses; it was my signature on the oath. But when I took it the second time, it was a lot more meaningful. It's like marriage. You work harder at it the second time."

At this stage, Bill Clinton is floating a trial balloon about re-hiring the air traffic controllers.

Now he's going to wait and see if the public wants to shoot it down or let it fly.

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