Response to ‘Obama and NATCA: Friendly Skies or Fire from the Heavens’

NATCA President Patrick Forrey says that a recent article on the labor portion of the 2008 Democratic Party’s platform obscures the issues “through the recalling of the most unfortunate incident in Federal labor-management relations history.”

Author Bob Gilson gets a lot of things wrong in his column Obama and NATCA: Friendly Skies or Fire from the Heavens (August 28, 2008).

Gilson’s lumping of three separate and distinct subjects into one is either due to a lack of understanding of the issues in the labor portion of the 2008 Democratic Party’s platform or is intended to purposely obscure the issues to create an atmosphere of paranoia through the recalling of the most unfortunate incident in Federal labor-management relations history.

The platform provides:

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.

The first issue, providing the right to bargain collectively to all federal employees, including public safety officers, should be easily recognizable as distinct. The Bush Administration has systematically excluded federal employees from the right to organize and collectively bargain from the Transportation Security Administration screeners to provisions of the new personnel systems in Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. There is no rationale for the restriction on the right to organize and collectively bargain other than anti-union animus.

The second issue is to resolve the collective bargaining disputes between the FAA and its represented employees. While it’s simple to boil this down to a National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) versus Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) problem it clearly is another branch in the anti-union animus tree of the Bush Administration. The FAA has engaged in a pattern and practice of behavior that eliminates the opportunity for labor peace. It’s an easy out to draw parallels between today’s situation and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike 27 years ago, but it takes a more nuanced understanding of the issues involved to realize that this isn’t just controllers versus the FAA.

The American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) reached an agreement with FAA, its members ratified that agreement, and FAA refused to implement its terms and conditions. Those employees have been without a contract for the entire term of the Bush Administration. Four out of five Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) negotiations have been at impasse for over five years. In PASS’s Technical Operations unit, the FAA’s proposed agreement was rejected by 98 percent of the employees. It is unclear when the negotiations process will begin again due to pending legal proceedings initiated by the FAA. The FAA unilaterally implemented terms and conditions of employment on several NATCA bargaining units in July 2005 and then did the same for three other units, including the air traffic controllers bargaining unit, in early September 2006. Without union agreement or employee ratification, unilaterally imposed terms and conditions are not contracts.

While Gilson’s and FAA’s analysis of FAA reform legislation only includes a myopic reading of 49 U.S.C. 40122(a), both fail to recognize Sec. 40122(g)(2)(C) that provides for 5 U.S.C. Chapter 71 for labor-management relations. Chapter 71, of course, includes the Federal Service Impasses Panel. The language in Obama’s 2006 legislation, the provisions of FAA Reauthorization (S. 1300 and H.R. 2881), and the recently introduced Lautenberg (D-NJ)-Inhofe (R-OK) sponsored “The Federal Aviation Administration Employee Retention Act” (S. 3416), would all bring an end to the FAA’s misapplication of the current statute by requiring a fair, impartial resolution to collective bargaining disputes. They would insure good faith collective bargaining, rather than, under this Administration’s reading of the current statute, no incentive for the agency to reach agreement.

The third issue from the platform that Gilson mentions is that it would “ban the permanent replacement of striking workers.”

Gilson mistakenly links the sentence on FAA collective bargaining to this one. Anyone with knowledge of private sector labor relations would realize that this plank in the platform is referring to a desired reversal of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act that prohibits private sector employers from temporarily replacing striking workers, but allows them to permanently replace strikers. (See: NLRB v. Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co., 304 U.S. 333 (1938))

Gilson’s attempt to link Obama’s desire to prevent striking employees from being replaced for exercising their right to engage in protected concerted activity under the law and the unlawful PATCO strike and its aftermath is repugnant. NATCA would never consider engaging in an illegal strike and NATCA has never attempted to make a strike by Federal employees legal through legislation.

Finally, it should be noted, as Gilson is fond of saying, “it doesn’t take an avionics engineer to figure out” that a change from one supervisor for every 10 bargaining unit employees to one supervisor for every seven bargaining unit employees is actually an increase, not a reduction in supervisors as Gilson believes. Fractions can be scary things, but even more frightening is the air traffic controller staffing crisis that has been exacerbated by the FAA’s unilateral implementation of work and pay rules on its workforce. Fear mongering about an air traffic controller strike, though, is irresponsible and Gilson should know better than that.

Patrick Forrey is the President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.