Obama and NATCA: Friendly Skies or Fire from the Heavens

Senator Obama may want to think twice about accepting an Air Traffic Controllers’ union endorsement. When a controllers’ union endorses a presidential candidate, watch out! In 1980, they endorsed Ronald Reagan and look what happened. Is another job action possible?

Here’s a quote from the 2008 Democratic party’s platform:

“We will ensure that federal employees, including public safety officers who put their lives on the line every day have the right to bargain collectively, and we will fix the broken bargaining process at the Federal Aviation Administration. We will fight to ban the permanent replacement of striking workers, so that workers can stand up for themselves without worrying about losing their livelihoods.”

Language on protecting strikers in the next sentence after fixing FAA, is it a coincidence? You decide.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) gained the right to bargain pay during the Clinton administration. If that wasn’t enough, they used Clinton’s partnership executive order and a willing FAA administrator to sign a 1999 agreement that reduced the supervisory ratio from 1/10 to 1/7.

In 1981, FAA kept planes flying during the PATCO strike by enlisting supervisors and managers to man the screens. It doesn’t take an avionics engineer to figure out that fewer supervisors means greater leverage for NATCA if they decide to repeat PATCO’s attempt to hold the flying public hostage for even greater wage and benefit gains. What’s that old saying about learning history’s lessons?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

“Air traffic controllers earn relatively high pay and have good benefits. Median annual earnings of air traffic controllers in May 2006 were $117,240. The middle 50 percent earned between $86,860 and $142,210. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $59,410, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $145,600. The average annual salary, excluding overtime earnings, for air traffic controllers in the Federal Government—which employs 90 percent of all controllers—was $122,220 in May 2006.”

During the Bush years, it was not surprising that FAA and NATCA engaged in hard bargaining. When an outgoing administration hogties an incoming one, it’s to be expected.

It’s the whining about it from the unions that I find most interesting. When a union gleefully plays politics to get what it can from the then in crowd, it’s unseemly to complain when the out crowd gets in and realizes it has been well and truly…, well, you figure it out.

The law which provided for pay bargaining also provided that FAA could impose a settlement if an impasse was reached in bargaining and mediation failed to resolve it:

“If the services of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service do not lead to an agreement, the Administrator’s proposed change to the personnel management system shall not take effect until 60 days have elapsed after the Administrator has transmitted the proposed change, along with the objections of the exclusive bargaining representatives to the change, and the reasons for such objections, to Congress.” (49 USC 40122(a))

In 2006, FAA invoked the law and sent an impasse over the highly disputed and publicly argued renegotiation of the ’99 agreement to the Hill. Congress decided not to address the issue and FAA management implemented its last best offer.

What’s most interesting is Senator Obama’s involvement in all of this. Apparently unhappy that the 1996 law might have discomfited NATCA and that the Congress as a whole neither felt their pain nor saw fit to give them what they wanted, he introduced S. 2201. Wonderfully and euphemistically short titled as the `Federal Aviation Administration Fair Labor Management Dispute Resolution Act of 2006‘, it reads as follows:

Section 40122(a)(2) of title 49, United States Code, is amended to read as follows:


`(A) MEDIATION- If the Administrator does not reach an agreement under paragraph (1) with the exclusive bargaining representatives, the services of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service shall be used to attempt to reach such agreement.

`(B) CONGRESSIONAL ACTION- If the services of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service do not lead to an agreement, the Administrator shall transmit to the Senate and the House of Representatives the proposed change to the personnel management system, together with the objections of the exclusive bargaining representatives to the change and the reasons for such objections. The Administrator may not implement the proposed change unless a bill is enacted into law that specifically authorizes the change during the 60-day period beginning on the date on which both Houses of Congress receive the proposed change transmitted by the Administrator. For purposes of this subparagraph, the 60-day period shall not include any period during which Congress has adjourned sine die.

`(C) BINDING ARBITRATION- If a bill described in subparagraph (B) is not enacted into law within the 60-day period, the Administrator and the bargaining representatives shall submit the proposed change to binding arbitration in accordance with the provisions of subchapter IV of chapter 5 of title 5, United States Code.’. (My Emphasis)

If that ain’t a second bite of the apple, I don’t know what is.

While not present at the deliberations leading to the 1981 strike, I was told by some close to the action that neither FAA nor PATCO had clean hands. The then FAA’s political leadership, for its part allegedly raised PATCO’s expectations unrealistically by holding out the promise of pay legislation then reneging on the deal. PATCO’s political leadership (union politics v. party politics) allegedly fired up the membership’s expectations and then couldn’t deliver. What I do know from first hand experience is that an agency that rolls over repeatedly to the union’s demands regardless of whether they are realistic or affordable, is asking for trouble.

How might an Obama administration stand up to NATCA bargaining demands? Maybe we’ll get to find out.

As always, any opinion expressed is mine and not FedSmith’s or anyone elses.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.