WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has decided to invite air traffic controllers dismissed in their 1981 strike to reapply for their former jobs, administration and congressional officials said yesterday.
The controllers, barred from re-employment by President Ronald Reagan, would be allowed to seek reinstatement after the administration decides how many are needed, what criteria to use in their rehiring and what retraining they would require.
The plan to send the ousted controllers back to their jobs is being developed jointly by the departments of Labor and Transportation and the Office of Personnel Management. They hope to send their recommendations to President Clinton this week, the officials said. It is not known when he will act on them.
How many of the controllers would return and how quickly was also unclear. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, estimates that 3,000 of the 11,400 controllers who were dismissed are interested in returning to work. But the Federal Aviation Administration contends there is no shortage of air traffic controllers and plans to hire only 200 more this year.
The administration's action comes amid mounting pressure from Democrats in Congress who consider the ban on re-employment unjustly punitive. They believe that just as the ban became a defining moment for Mr. Reagan, showing that he could not be taken lightly when federal workers defied the government, rehiring the controllers would have symbolic weight for Mr. Clinton as well, signaling a more compassionate, pro-labor stance.
The rehiring of the former controllers would also be a victory for organized labor, for which the dismissals were the first sign of the hard times in the Reagan years.
Government employees are forbidden by law to strike against the public safety, and each controller who was banned had signed a no-strike pledge.
Joseph Del Balzo, acting administrator of the FAA, said: "If the president chooses to remove the ban, we're prepared to bring them back into the work force."
Mr. Del Balzo said in a recent interview that in the dozen years since the strike air traffic controllers had received better training on improved equipment. In addition, the system itself has changed and uses different procedures.
Besides deciding how much retraining the former controllers would require, the agencies working on the plan to reinstate them are considering whether they would get their seniority back or have preference over other applicants. Back pay is not being considered.
The former controllers could be sent to relieve shortages at congested airports in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
"We might be able to get them to go to understaffed facilities," said David A. Heymsfeld, counsel to the aviation subcommittee of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee.
Two dozen senators urged Mr. Clinton yesterday to rescind the ban, which was imposed on the striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a union that was later disbanded. "This action can help repair the damage done to the PATCO controllers' lives and to the safety and efficiency of the national air traffic control system," they said in a letter to Mr. Clinton.
The letter was circulated by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat who is chairman of the labor subcommittee of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. Other signers included Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee; and Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all Democrats. One Republican senator, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, signed the letter.
Two House committee chairmen have introduced legislation that would enable the dismissed controllers to reapply for their jobs. But the two co-sponsors, Reps. Norman Y. Mineta, a California Democrat, chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, and James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, said they hope that the legislation would prove unnecessary.