Politics, Federal Unions and Avoiding the Federal Pay Freeze at the FAA

Are there secret negotiations going on between the FAA and a union to preserve future salary increases and the “official time” given to union representatives?

In the past several days, the National Air Traffic Controller’s Association (NATCA) has announced it “enthusiastically endorses” President Obama for re-election. On the surface, the endorsement is not linked to any specific event.

But, in politics at the national level, there is often more going on than what is obvious on the surface. And, if persistent and credibly sourced rumors in federal labor relations in the Washington, DC area are accurate, NATCA is hedging its bets on who will be the next U.S. president by seeking a five year contract with FAA in new contract negotiations out of the public eye and unbeknownst to many people who would normally be involved in such an event. According to a highly placed source, here is how the new negotiations are supposed to work.

Currently, under an agreement expiring in October 2012, Air Traffic Controllers get a 3% raise each year despite the Obama government-wide pay freeze. Also, NATCA receives about 120,000 hours of official time annually in addition to other benefits.   What a new contract would do, if consummated, is lock in the raise and the official time until at least 2017.

The political background lends credence to the rumor about contract negotiations that would be beneficial to the union and its members. Republicans in Congress are looking closely at official time used by federal employee labor unions and the cost of this benefit. According to agency sources, the average controller/union representative in the FAA now makes $127,000 per year. 120,000 hours is about 67 person years for a total of over $8,000,000 in official time each year paid for by the agency. Reportedly, it is not only outsiders being kept in the dark but many NATCA union officials are not involved or aware of the negotiations which are allegedly being conducted using personal (not government) email systems to avoid discovery.

Federal contracts normally have specific re-opener provisions and renegotiating the NATCA/FAA contract would generally require a notice by one party to the other.  Usually, this is a union initiative done with member support. The existing NATCA/FAA contract now reads:

“ARTICLE 105 – GROUND RULES – Section 1. Within one hundred eighty (180) days prior to the expiration of this Agreement and upon request of either Party, the Parties enter into and conduct negotiations of ground rules for the purpose renegotiating the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement.”

The contract also states that it “shall be automatically renewed for additional periods of one (1) year unless either Party gives written notice to the other of its desire to amend or terminate this Agreement.”

If there are negotiations now going on, the parties appear to have ignored this contract language.

What would be the issues raised and what advantages would accrue through negotiating a new contract outside of the normal system for bargaining on a new contract?

Here are a few of the issues and a possible rationale for negotiations being held outside of the normal labor relations process.

  1. Does the White House know this is going on? There are political implications for such a deal and the President and his campaign team would presumably be concerned about the public relations fallout of a federal agency and a union making a deal that anticipates a possible Democratic Party defeat in 2012.
  2. FAA and NATCA got a pass on the pay freeze because ATCs were entitled to a 3% increase covered by an existing contract ending in 2012.  How would the Administration justify 3% per year for ATCs from 2013 to 2017 while the rest of government is frozen?  Would the negotiators and the agency would tell Congress the pay raise is a a fait accompli as it is only an extension of current terms? (See Pay Freeze Misses Federal Employees Whose Unions Will Bargain Pay)
  3.  If you are a taxpayer asking why highly paid Federal employees are getting guaranteed pay increases with the economy still lurking near a double-dip recession, will “Occupy Wall Street” become “Occupy 800 Independence Ave.?” (FAA’s HQ Building)  Official time for federal union representatives is currently a topic under discussion in Congress and one bill would reportedly save about $600 million a year by eliminating this benefit for federal unions. The reaction of Congressional representatives to the FAA doing an end run around the existing process that either keeps official time at its current high level or even enhances it would, presumably, not be favorable and have future political implications for the agency. (See Political Reality, Federal Employee Unions and the Financial Future of Federal Employees)
  4.  Federal unions claim to be democratic institutions. If elected officials and members of the union are kept in the dark with no voice in the topics being introduced or negotiated, how might they view this process in terms of internal politics?
  5. If you are a federal employee making less than $127,000.00 (most federal employees) without a pay increase and watching ATC’s receive a guaranteed 3% a year resulting in $151,645.00 by 2017, what would happen to your “I’ll bite the bullet for America attitude?”   The last and arguably most important issue is, if indeed such dealings are going on, is the FAA is living up to its fiduciary obligations to the people of this country. Is getting in bed with NATCA, if it’s happening, anyone’s idea of good government or public trust?

We talked to Doug Church, the Director of Communications for NATCA regarding this issue. He indicated he was not aware of any such negotiations and reiterated that a new contract went into effect in 2009.

We also talked to a labor relations branch chief in the FAA. When asked about these negotiations occurring, she said only: “I have no information on that” and immediately hung up the phone.

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.