WASHINGTON_Contract talks between the government and the air traffic controllers' union broke off Wednesday after the Federal Aviation Administration declared an impasse.
The two sides, sometimes openly hostile to each other during nine months of collective bargaining, could not agree on compensation.
The dispute now goes to Congress, which has 60 days to intercede.
The FAA's administrator, Marion Blakey, said final offers were exchanged Tuesday night, but the two sides were too far apart.
"We have simply concluded that the gap between us is too large to continue these negotiations," Blakey said.
John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the FAA never intended to reach a voluntary agreement with the union.
"This FAA administrator does not respect work," Carr said. "She does not respect her work force. The feeling is growing mutual."
The FAA sent both proposals to Congress late Wednesday afternoon, agency spokesman Greg Martin said.
According to federal law, Congress must settle the issue within 60 days. If lawmakers fail to act, the FAA would impose its last, best contract offer.
That offer would raise the average controller's base pay plus premium pay from $128,000 (€104,387) to $140,000 (€114,174) in five years, Blakey said.
Carr said it is hard to cost out the FAA's proposal because it has too many variables.
Carr said the union will sue to bring the dispute before a federal labor relations panel rather than Congress.
The association also will try to convince Congress that it should pass a law that would send the two sides to binding arbitration, Carr said.
The talks began in July at the end of a five-year contract that expired Sept. 30, 2003. That contract was extended for two years with minor changes.
Blakey said controllers make much more money than other public servants, and control scheduling and hold back modernization.
The guaranteed annual increases under the current contract would make the controllers' salaries unaffordable, Blakey said. The FAA's last proposal would preserve base salaries and premiums for living in high-cost areas, but new controllers' would earn 30 percent less than what the existing work force earns.
The union has said the FAA is hostile to controllers and that its offer would result in a wave of retirements because it creates a disincentive for controllers to stay on the job.
Carr said the agency rejected an offer that would save taxpayers $1.4 billion (€1.14 billion).
Nearly half the current controllers are expected to retire in the next decade. Most of those workers are replacements for the controllers President Ronald Reagan fired in 1981 for striking the government illegally.
Neither side expects a strike.
On the Net:
Federal Aviation Administration: http://www.faa.gov
National Air Traffic Controllers Association: http://www.natca.org