Senators Step into Controller Pay Dispute

 - September 5, 2008, 7:17 AM

New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) and high-time general aviation pilot Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) have introduced bipartisan legislation that would ensure good-faith collective bargaining for FAA employees and provide for an impartial impasse resolution process. At the same time, it would restart contract talks between the agency and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca).

According to the two lead cosponsors, the bill, S.3416, “The Federal Aviation Administration Employee Retention Act,” would restore fairness to the collective bargaining process for Natca, the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (Pass) and other employee unions.

The legislation would reverse the 2006 work rules and pay rates imposed unilaterally by the FAA and previously agreed-to rates and terms would apply until new ones could be agreed to through the collective bargaining process; set a 45-day deadline for the two sides to reach agreement (all outstanding disputes not resolved through mediation would be sent to binding arbitration); and require negotiations for any future collective bargaining agreements to undergo the same process (mediation, then binding arbitration).

According to Lautenberg, the act would also provide full collective bargaining rights for all affected FAA employees. For example, he said, collective bargaining negotiations for some aviation safety inspectors have been at impasse for more than five years.

Staunching the Flow of Controller Retirements

“Our aviation system is in disarray,” said Natca president Patrick Forrey. “The FAA’s unilateral imposition of work and pay rules has forced our veteran air traffic controllers into retiring earlier than they had planned, depleting the human infrastructure that once made the U.S. aviation system the envy of the world.”

“This legislation will ensure that future negotiations are conducted in good faith and that impasses are resolved in a fair and impartial manner,” said Tom Brantley, president of Pass, which represents five bargaining units within the FAA, including technicians and aviation safety inspectors. “Pass is encouraged that lawmakers continue to recognize the need for fairness in collective bargaining and are grateful to Senators Lautenberg and Inhofe for their efforts in resolving this broken process.”
Meanwhile, contract negotiations in all of Pass’s bargaining units have been unsuccessful, resulting in impasses and lengthy litigation.

In late June the House introduced its own bill to resolve the longstanding contract dispute. H.R.6355, “The Air Service Improvement Act of 2008,” mandates a “fair and equitable” contract negotiation for the air traffic controllers by requiring the FAA and Natca to return to the bargaining table “under the last mutual agreement.”

The parties are required to resume negotiations, patterned after the process in Postal Service regulations, until a new contract is adopted. If the two sides do not reach agreement within 45 days after negotiations resume, the dispute would be submitted to binding arbitration. In the interim, affected employees are eligible for back pay, subject to the availability of appropriations, not to exceed $20 million.

Inhofe described the disputed negotiations as an “unfair process imposed upon employees” of the FAA. “As a pilot I am well acquainted with the exceptional work done by the employees of the FAA and I know first hand that our aviation system is only as good as these employees,” he said. “They deserve the right to bargain in good faith on their employment contracts.”

Said Sen. Lautenberg, “The Bush Administration’s disregard for FAA workers’ rights has put the safety of our aviation system at risk. The Administration’s heavy-handed tactics have forced experienced air traffic controllers out the door in record numbers. By giving all FAA employees fair labor rights, we can recruit and retain the number of safety professionals our air travel system needs to run smoothly and safely.”

Natca says the work and pay rules imposed on air traffic controllers have caused attrition of more than one-fifth of the workforce, and the rate of controllers’ retiring in their first year of eligibility doubled.

Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel III has cited the FAA’s hostile relations with the controllers union as the reason that controller retirements exceeded agency estimates by nearly 25 percent since 2004. Additionally, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified in June that the FAA projects 14 percent of its new hires will leave this fiscal year. That is double the 2006 rate and well above the 9 percent who left last year, the GAO said.