Air traffic controllers ponder their next move PATCO members may reapply for jobs

August 14, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

Yesterday, for the first time in 12 years, Dennis Callaghan was no longer exiled from the job he loved most -- directing jetliners to safe landings at the nation's biggest airports.

But the move to lift a federal employment ban against the former Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) members was too long in coming for Mr. Callaghan, who lives in Dorchester County.

"Even murderers get out in seven years," said Mr. Callaghan, an air traffic controller at BWI and Washington's National Airport before he was fired for striking illegally in 1981. He's now a controller at Martin State Airport, which wasn't affected by the Federal Aviation Administration ban.

Like many other former PATCO members, Mr. Callaghan says President Clinton's decision allowing them to reapply for their former jobs was a small, but important, gesture of reconciliation.

And while it may have come too late to change Mr. Callaghan's life, the move is being viewed as a mile post in the congressional battle over striker replacements.

The FAA lifted its lifetime ban on the PATCO members yesterday, a month before the Senate is expected to vote on a bill that would ban striker replacements -- such as those President Reagan used to break the PATCO strike.

Mr. Callaghan is torn between the prospect of returning to his old job and keeping to the path he has been creating since he was fired.

The money would be better at a major airport's control tower and the job is more fun, he said. He could easily earn $60,000 a year at an FAA control tower, about twice his current salary.

Still, he likes his job, and is considering other career plans. "I've done everything from being a canned-good salesman to working on tugboats. Life has to go on."

Besides, he noted, he might not have much of a chance at a job. The FAA says that although it is accepting applications, it has frozen hiring because of a strapped budget. Later this year, the agency hopes to hire about 200 controllers.

While lifting the FAA's hiring ban may not have a major impact on people such as Mr. Callaghan,labor and management leaders said yesterday that the president's announcement was an important symbol in a political battle that could affect all working Americans.

Mr. Reagan's decision to replace striking PATCO members permanently led other employers to use replacements to break strikes -- which has harmed the labor movement, said Lynne Mingarelli, head of the labor studies department at Dundalk Community College.

"What good is a law that says you can have a union if you can't go out on strike, or else you will lose your job?" she asked.

She continued: "I hope the president is signaling a new beginning for labor relations in this country" and will use this to help fight for passage of the ban on striker replacements.

Union opponents described the move as "a symbolic gesture for organized labor."

"This is a green light to union officials if they launch illegal strikes and threaten the safety of the public," said Martin Fox, spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee. "He's saying, 'It's OK with me, boys. I'm not going to do anything to stop it.' "

Mr. Fox says his group is preparing for a political battle in September, when the Senate is expected to consider the ban on replacement workers.

The House has passed the bill, and last year 57 Senators supported it. The bill was defeated because Republicans filibustered, and supporters of the bill could not muster the 60 votes needed to end debate.

Mr. Fox said his group hopes that a filibuster can kill the bill again in the Senate this fall.

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