Article from:  The Australian

Steve Creedy, Aviation writer | January 17, 2009

AIR traffic controllers are taking the next step towards potentially crippling industrial action after talks this week failed to resolve a key issue in pay negotiations with their employer, Airservices Australia.

Their union, Civil Air, is understood to have applied late yesterday to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to hold a membership ballot on planned action.

Options include rolling stoppages or an overtime ban, both of which could significantly disrupt air travel.

Further talks are scheduled for next week, but there appears to be little movement in the stand-off between the sides over sick leave.

Air traffic controllers currently get unlimited sick leave. Airservices wants to bring them into line with other industries and government departments and cap it at 15 days.

"The situation hasn't changed in terms of our disagreement about sick leave in particular, and they are insistent there can be no new agreement without our agreement to dispense with sick leave as required," Civil Air executive secretary Peter McGuane said.

"They just won't budge on that issue, and we have some pretty specific instructions from our members about it."

Civil Air's application must be processed within two working days. If approved, the Australian Electoral Commission will conduct a ballot of the members, which would give the union executive the power to determine the nature of the action.

They must then reveal ahead of time what action they will be taking, and affected parties such as airlines have the right to appeal.

The Government can also intervene, and has the power to terminate the bargaining period.

The two sides have been negotiating for eight months and have been trading accusations about staff shortages causing delays and requiring airlines to fly through uncontrolled airspace. Civil Air says mismanagement has led to a chronic shortage of staff, and that the controllers have been asked to work unreasonable levels of overtime.

Airservices accuses the controllers of refusing to work overtime, making themselves unavailable for work and calling in sick as part of an undeclared industrial campaign.

The dispute created headlines when a "vision statement" issued by the union last year suggested a restructuring that would see pay rises of between 18 per cent and 63 per cent.

Airservices has since proposed a 4.1per cent annual pay rise over three years in the new agreement, and has offered guarantees that controllers who have long-term illnesses will not be disadvantaged by a cap imposed on sick leave.

Mr McGuane said recently there had been some movement on the pay aspect, and denied the union was still seeking a rumoured 25 per cent average pay rise.