Does Salary Indicate A Person’s Value to an Organization?

How much is a federal employee worth? The latest negotiations between the FAA and the controller’s union are vitriolic and some of the issues boil down to money.

How much are you worth? Are you paid as much as you should be paid?

Most Americans, whether working for the federal government or a private company would probably answer something like “I should be making more money.” Most of us view our paycheck (assuming we are fortunate enough to get one) through our own myopia. I work hard, I provide a valuable service to my employer, I have rising expenses and need money to pay them,” etc.

And, not surprisingly, how much people make is of interest to all of us. Some of these people are probably checking out how much they would make by applying for a new job in a different agency or geograhic area. Some are probably just curious whether their friends in disparate locations like Houston, Texas are making more than their friends in Huntsville, Alabama.

The negotiations between the air traffic controller’s union and the Federal Aviation Administration have taken federal labor relations to a level of rancor and public name-calling not seen in the federal sector since the previous air traffic controller’s union–PATCO–decided its members needed a lot more money and a lot less work and went on strike to show just how much they wanted the extra dough and time off. The rhetoric and abuse against some of the people who were not supportive of the strike made national headlines and ended up with many controllers walking away from their jobs, President Ronald Reagan firing the strikers, and the air traffic system running smoothly and without the public rancor for a couple of decades.

One of the chief points of public debate is how much air traffic controller’s make. The FAA apparently got sick of being called names by the union and the accusations that it was making up figures and it hired an outside auditing firm to come up with the figures for the compensation for air traffic controllers. The FAA issued a press release stating “that an international financial and accounting services firm validated the agency’s calculation that the average 2005 air traffic controller compensation package exceeded $166,000. Other independently validated figures included controller compensation increasing 75 percent between 1998 and 2005 and the doubling of the wage gap between controllers and all other FAA employees during the same period.”

The union, not surprisingly, defends the salary structure as being justified and argues that the wage compensation increase was due to variety of factors including the cost of benefits and locality pay raises for all federal employees.

No doubt that the average compensation package for air traffic controllers is a lot of money regardless of the reason or the exact amount of the compensation package.

The negotiations have made news in part because of the union’s attempt to get new legislation from Congress governing how a negotiations impasse would be resolved. The vitriolic rhetoric has also created attention for the bargaining process. And, finally, the history of an air traffic controllers union having a penchant not only for vitriol and noteworthy demands based on their own high opinion of their skills and ability but also for the controllers’ past history of a willingness to create disruption and mayhem in the air traffic control system.

While the press releases have focused on the compensation of air traffic controllers, what are the salaries of the union president, the FAA administrator and the most highly paid controllers?

According to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey makes about $162,000 a year. The top 100 FAA controllers earn $197,000 a year (Cabinet secretaries, Congressmen and other federal employees: eat your hearts out!).

And NATCA President John Carr doesn’t fare too badly either. The salary paid by the unions to its president may reflect the relative wealth of that union. While NATCA is a small federal employee union in terms of members, it is the most generous—perhaps because air traffic controllers are among the highest paid federal employees. In the 2004 filing with the Department of Labor, the union says it paid its president a salary of $224,746.

Here are a couple of comparisons. According to the latest reports posted by the Department of Labor, AFGE paid its National President, John Gage, an annual salary of $136,975 and NTEU paid President Colleen Kelley $189,889.

If the controller’s union is successful in getting Congress to agree to arbitrating the final contract terms in the event of an impasse, the union members would probably say he is well worth that money and more. If, as the Wall Street Journal urges in its editorial, Congress and the administration end up privatizing the air traffic system, his salary would probably not be considered a bargain by those paying the price. (See Rating the Clout Index of Federal Employee Unions)

For the rest of the federal workforce, enjoy your 3.1% pay raise this year. It is likely to be smaller than that in 2007. NATCA is one of a very small number of unions that can negotiate salaries for its members.

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