NEW ORLEANS -- Former President Gerald Ford Sunday urged the federal courts and the Justice Department to refrain from sending striking air traffic controllers to prison for criminal contempt.
Prosecution of the 12,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization would be a case of over-reaction by the Justice Department, Ford said.
Officials already have taken some strikers to court on contempt charges for defying back-to-work orders issued by federal judges.
'I hope the courts and Department of Justice will avoid any imprisonment of union leaders,' he said. 'I think that is over-reacting.'
Ford, speaking to the Louisiana Retail Food Dealers Association, said the government and the controllers union should be able to negotiate a settlement, perhaps through a third party.
'I think there can be a way negotiations can can be resumed,' the former president said, 'but I doubt that it can be done through a union that apparently no longer is representative' of the strikers.
Ford said he has spoken to President Ronald Reagan about the strike and Reagan indicated he would like to have the controllers back at work.
But Ford praised Reagan's hard stance with the strikers, saying he had 'no choice' but to fire them for taking part in an illegal walkout.
Ford also applauded Reagan's decision to step up development of the controversial neutron bomb, but he cautioned the next step should be to sell the idea to European allies.