That 70’s Show! FAA/Air Traffic Controllers Back At It

The FAA has asked a federal mediator to help with the labor negotiations between the agency and the union that represented air traffic controllers.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the air traffic controllers have traditionally had a rough relationship.

In August of 1981, the air traffic controllers went on strike. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) wanted more money, shorter working hours and a better retirement system for its members. Two days later, President Reagan fired the 11,500 controllers who had not returned to work. And, in case they misunderstood the extent of his willingness to enforce the no-strike law, he subsequently issued an executive order that created a lifetime ban on the rehiring of the striking federal employees.

PATCO and the FAA had a contentious relationship since the union was formed in 1968. In 1968, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975, and 1978 ATCs conducted nationwide slowdowns and sickouts in efforts to gain better pay, training, staffing, retirement benefits and shorter hours. By 1980 the union had achieved significant benefits for controllers, including one of the best retirement systems in the country and the best collective bargaining position of any union in the public sector.

In August 1993, in the spirit of “labor-management partnership,” President Clinton eliminated the ban on rehiring the fired air traffic controllers. A few hundred of the former striking controllers were hired by the FAA.

In 1995, Congress passed a new law that gave air traffic controllers more bargaining power than other federal employee unions. An agreement was reached under this new law in 1998. This was the era of “partnership” between labor unions and federal agencies that was being championed by the Clinton administration. At the time the agreement was signed, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the FAA were spouting the benefits of this new cooperative era and boasting about the successful partnership between management and labor. Perhaps it was politics to show the public the Clinton policy was successful; maybe it was just the money that bought the cooperation of the union. In any event, the new contract gave the controllers some of the highest wages in government. The union also gave its support to former Vice-President Al Gore in his run for president.

The spirit of joy and partnership has long passed. Current negotiations between the air traffic controllers union and the FAA resemble the antagonistic relationship between PATCO and the FAA.

According to the FAA, controllers now have an average total annual compensation package of $168,000 including $128,000 in wages and overtime. That is a 74% increase since the last contract in 1998, according to the agency.

The agency says that the union has proposed a compensation package that would bring the average compensation up to $200,000 per controller over the next four years. The union’s proposal would cost the agency an extra $2.6 billion a year over the life of the contract. As was the case in the PATCO/FAA negotiations, the union is also seeking a shorter work week.

Negotiations apparently are not going well. The union has engaged in a public relations offensive of its own taking out television ads attacking the agency and numerous articles have appeared in local newspapers around the country decrying the shortage of controllers in various airports.

The union disputes the agency’s figures and the agency’s characterization of the negotiations. It says that it is not asking for a large pay increase and that the average figures given by the agency for controller pay is overstated. It also claims the agency wants to give more jobs to private companies–a charge that the agency denies.

With both sides saying that the other side is giving out incorrect information and both sides engaging in their own public relations offensives, it is not too surprising that FAA has called for a federal mediator to help move the parties to a quick resolution.

No one really knows if a voluntary agreement will be reached between the agency and the union or if a mediator is really necessary. Predictably, the agency says it needs to move forward and no progress is being made on the most significant issues; the union disagrees and thinks progress is being made.

The FAA’s request to bring in a federal mediator is significant in the negotiations though. Under the statute that governs the bargaining negotiations between these parties, the agency can put its proposal before Congress for review after an impasse has been formally declared by either side or by a mediator.

If Congress does not act, the agency can impose the offer it last made to the controllers.

If the past is indeed prologue, the nation’s traveling public could be in for some problems. No one has called for a strike and that would be unlikely. But, when PATCO was representing controllers, numerous job actions went on for years leading up to the strike and the firing of the controllers. If a contract agreement is forced on the parties, it is not out of the question that the same pattern could begin again with work slowdowns or other tactics designed to force the agency to give the union what it wants as the price of labor peace. Or, perhaps, the agency will begin the legal and political process of contracting out more of the jobs performed by the employees represented by the union.

The labor negotiations should be interesting. Enjoy your next flight.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47