What the Heck is Going On at FAA?

What is going on with the Federal Aviation Administration labor relations program? A recent resignation brings the situation into the public eye.

Every once in a while something shows up in my email which I find interesting or even amazing. Below is the text of an email sent by David Feder, Director, Labor and Employee Relations, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to his staff explaining to them the reasons for his resignation. It falls into the amazing category.

To:  Employees of the FAA Office of Labor and Employee Relations

From:  Dave Feder 

It is with sadness that I announce that I have resigned from my new position as Director, Labor and Employee Relations at FAA.  I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting and working with you during my 6 month tenure, and I appreciate your hard work and dedication.

To dispel any rumors about why I resigned, it is simply a matter of a wide difference of opinion with the FAA leadership over how to conduct labor relations with NATCA.  I advised, advocated and believe that the FAA must bring the new 2016 NATCA contract into full compliance with the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute, and that the FAA must at all times act consistent with the Statute.  The FAA political and career leadership disagrees.  The FAA is of the view that it is proper to knowingly continue contract terms that are inconsistent with the Statute into future contracts, in order to appease NATCA and to avoid NATCA opposition to FAA initiatives.  After 27 years of prosecuting Federal agencies and unions for violating the Statute and after 13 years of advising Federal agencies on how to comply with the Statute, I was not going to be complicit in intentionally acting inconsistent with that same Statute. Hence, I had no choice but to resign.   

I wish you all well professionally and personally.


So Who is This Guy?

In 2001, the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) published this bio upon Mr. Feder’s appointment as Acting General Counsel:

Mr. Feder has been the Deputy General Counsel of the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) since 1994. As the Deputy General Counsel, he is responsible for: providing legal advice and direction throughout the OGC; managing the day-to-day processing of all unfair labor practice and representation cases within the OGC; and directing the delivery of facilitation, intervention, training and education alternative dispute resolution services. Mr. Feder, who previously served as the Assistant General Counsel for Legal Policy and Advice, has been with the FLRA since 1979.

Mr. Feder received a B.A. degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton, a J.D. degree from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, and an L.L.M. in Labor Law (with honors) from New York University School of Law. Mr. Feder has published numerous articles concerning the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute, and serves on the faculty of the Georgetown University School of Law.

BloombergBusiness carries this bio (apparently before his accession to the Chief job at FAA):

Mr. David L. Feder served as Principal of HCS for FPMI Solutions, Inc. Mr. Feder served as Associate Commissioner for the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of Labor-Management and Employee Relations. In this position, he led a Nationwide Labor-Management and Employee Relations Program. Prior to this key LER role with the SSA, Mr. Feder served as the Acting General Counsel of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). In this position, he was responsible for investigation and prosecution of unfair labor practice charges and processing representation petitions filed under the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations statute throughout the US and abroad, and for managing the FLRA’s regional offices and dispute resolution program. Other critical LER roles, Mr. Feder served throughout his Federal career include FLRA Deputy General Counsel and FLRA Assistant General Counsel for Legal Policy and Advice. Mr. Feder serves as a Member of variety of Labor Management Relations professional associations and has served on The Adjunct Faculty of The Georgetown University School Of Law. Mr. Feder is a Frequent Speaker, Lecturer, Trainer and Facilitator and has published several articles addressing Federal sector labor management relations. He has also received numerous awards and recognition throughout his 30-year government career. Mr. Feder earned his bachelor’s degree from State University of New York at Binghamton, a Juris Doctor from Northwestern University School of Law, and a master of laws in labor law from New York University School of Law.

I have met Mr. Feder but only in his capacity as a representative of the FLRA. He and I have done similar work in the private sector advising Federal Agencies so what I know about his work as a consultant is not based on personal experience.

What’s Going On at FAA?

From the letter to his staff, it certainly appears that he was in disagreement with both the career and political leadership of the Agency on handling labor relations with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and whether the Agency is compliant with the Federal Labor Law or wants to be.

FAA is a very difficult Agency in which to even try to understand labor relations. There are a lot of levels of complexity. Many have participated in creating the mess called labor relations there including the Hill (with a major role); every administration since at least Jimmy Carter’s (with varying levels of smart, Jimmy on the low end); the FLRA (which demonstrated its usual lack of leadership); as well as the Offices of Management and Budget and Personnel Management (each of which has a long view of about 30 seconds when it comes to Federal labor relations). FAA itself cannot escape a role in creating this Gordian knot and there have been no Alexanders to take a sword and hack it apart (Did I just say Hack? Sorry!)

What do we know for sure? One basic fact is that NATCA makes everybody nervous. With the Help of the Clinton Administration and the neglect or even support of the current bunch, FAA may not be in a position to do what it did in 1981 when PATCO (don’t need to spell that out, do I?) struck and there were sufficient supervisors to keep the system running (albeit slowly and carefully). Over the years, NATCA has worked hard to pressure FAA management to minimize its ability to keep the air traffic system running should there be a second strike. In addition, today’s system is much more complex than was the case in 1981.

NATCA holds very valuable cards in any poker game about air traffic safety or even flight operations. Their power is obvious when you consider that they are telling the Hill it should hand over the system to them and there were some up there that would probably do it given half a chance. (See previous article.)

Also, ask yourself if you think anyone at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. would have the guts to face them down if they struck again?

What Will Mr. Feder’s Resignation Accomplish?

So Mr. Feder tells his staff he is quitting because FAA is not sufficiently compliant with the Federal labor law. Well, since there’s no Federal labor law jail, except for striking, I’m sorry but his resignation letter appears a bit naïve. FAA’s IG has been beating up on management for years over its handling of pay negotiations and other labor relations matters. As recently as last year, FedSmith wrote up an IG Report condemning FAA leadership for operating without sufficient internal controls.

To be frank, did Mr. Feder not read either that article or that report among the many others before accepting the job (6 months ago)? He says he has over 40 years in the business, after all. I don’t know what interview questions he was asked but maybe he should have asked some of his own.

Before you pick on me for picking on him, remember this is a guy who sat in a political job at FLRA in an acting capacity. As you also know, I don’t think the FLRA world is a place to learn about the management side of federal government labor relations. Hard situations exist driven by many factors. At the level he mentions in his letter, hard and very often, ambiguous decisions are driven by people way above Mr. Feder’s pay grade. If you asked the Hill or the White House which Agency they that would create the greatest vulnerability if things went south, I’ll bet you a meal at a good DC restaurant, FAA would be close to the top of the list.

If Mr. Feder thinks the situation is a mess today, a history lesson is in order to a time when the then Secretary, Drew Lewis, didn’t trust the career people sufficiently to let them bargain with PATCO. He raised expectations by hiring a DC law firm to bargain for him. The firm made promises on behalf of the Agency that the Hill wouldn’t keep and close to 12,000 Feds got fired as a result. Bringing an upcoming agreement into compliance with a federal statute that anybody with sense knows was a mistake from the outset hardly seems worth falling on one’s sword about. This is particularly true as no one in FAA senior leadership has worried about it for at least six years.

So let me be optimistic rather than realistic for a moment. The attention generated by Mr. Feder’s email to his staff may have a positive benefit. Instead of its usual mode of operation, layering inconsistent law over inconsistent law, wouldn’t it be nice if someone on the Hill considered a comprehensive look at FAA and its many problems, labor relations near the top, with an eye to solving them over a longer run than one budget cycle. Now I’m being naïve.

As always, the above opinions, that are mine, are mine alone. I’m considering trying to pull together an advanced bargaining seminar in DC this winter (For Agency Reps). If you have an interest in coming or perhaps speaking or leading a discussion group on a hot or useful topic, drop me an email. Contact me through my author profile page and I’ll get back to you. The email form is down the page.

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.