Control issues: 25 years after the Patco strike

 - December 18, 2006, 6:17 AM
In the late 1970s, Continental Airlines president Frank Lorenzo used a court of law to confront his pilots with an existing, although seldom used, negotiating technique, abrogating their contract when he was unable to secure an agreement through traditional collective bargaining. He quickly replaced his then striking workers with a non-union workforce willing to accept his management style and pay scale.

A decade later, after realizing that a non-unionized cockpit workforce was
a bad idea, the new Continental pilot group returned to the Air Line Pilots Association. Lorenzo clashed again with labor at Eastern Airlines in 1986 when he bought the company for pennies on the dollar during a strike. With Lorenzo at the helm, Eastern failed in 1989.

In the government sector the leverage against labor has always been the employee oath never to strike no matter the circumstances. City, state and federal workers all signed on to essentially the same social contract, one that often makes it nearly impossible for workers to bargain for wages or improved working conditions. In the era of Enron, concern about violating an oath might seem like a quaint notion to some. But in the 1970s, an oath was the accepted and expected level of conduct in government.

One federal employee union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (Patco), organized the majority of the nation’s 14,500 air traffic controllers into a bargaining unit that called a strike some 25 years ago (on Aug. 3, 1981) against their employer, the FAA. The union sought better working conditions, better wages and a 32-hour workweek.

Contract offers traded between the FAA and Patco in June 1981 were eventually lost in history as strike plans were finalized. The effect of the Patco strike extended far beyond the nearly 12,000 people who lost their jobs when they refused to return to work without a contract; it changed the face of collective bargaining in the U.S.

Controllers are type-A people, independent thinkers who are not afraid to challenge authority. Unfortunately, those traits make them poor drones in a government agency that is managed by people with similar traits. Art Shostak, a professor emeritus of sociology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, put it more bluntly: “They [controllers] give orders and are not comfortable taking them. They were military veterans, and many in the FAA were not pansies. They are feisty, hard-nosed types and resent the FAA and the airline pilots trying to set the terms of their relationship.”

Some called the strike inevitable because of Patco’s militant stance against the FAA; others called it bad timing. On television just a few hours after the walkout began, President Ronald Reagan gave controllers 48 hours to return to work or face job termination. Few did, and he fired nearly all the holdouts.

Patco believed the nation’s ATC system would grind to a halt almost immediately after the strike began. But the union miscalculated the stubbornness of the administration and the FAA, as well as their deep pockets, which could sustain the cost of hiring replacement workers.

The months of pre-strike activity gave the government time to plan for the possibility of a strike, including shuffling hundreds of military controllers to places they could be most useful. Many low-activity VFR towers were closed and those controllers were transferred to busier locations. Traffic kept flowing, albeit much more slowly than normal.

“No one thought the government would fire 12,000 professionals and put the system at risk to prove a point,” said Ron Taylor, president of what is left of Patco and a former striker himself. “The FAA paid subsidies to the airlines through the Air Transport Association to keep them quiet. Flow control in the U.S. began during the strike as well to make the system work. They call these gate holds now, but you’re still seeing the strike of 1981.”

Taylor said “The oath we signed was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court because of the no-strike clause.” One source said Patco controllers were not the problem with the system, but merely the whistleblowers about the conditions under which they worked. Interestingly, a new controller’s union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca), was certified less than five years after the Patco strike, demonstrating that the root causes of the 1981 strike had not disappeared.

By mid-August 1981, the FAA had turned the strike into a system-rejuvenation program to hire and train thousands of replacement workers. It’s tough to walk a picket line when few people notice. Ruth Marlin, executive vice president of Natca, said, “The world was a different place in 1981. Strikes were more successful. It was not acceptable to hire replacement workers.” That changed in 1981.

Ronald Reagan’s pro-union stance in the late 1950s and early 1960s might have led Patco to believe he would support the job action. Shostak said, “Robert Poli, Patco’s 1981 president, thought he had support from Reagan and was under great pressure from the most militant faction in Patco to ‘kick ass.’ He got along with [then DOT Secretary] Drew Lewis and actually wanted to accept the last offer made, but the militants in Patco would not hear of it. They believed their own propaganda and preferred to risk drinking the Kool-Aid than back off from a showdown with the much hated FAA.”

Also working against Patco was the poor publicity the union garnered for its cause among pilots with a number of slowdowns in the years before 1981. Few people understood an air traffic controller’s job. Reagan had many friends in the media and was still riding high after gaining the release of the U.S. hostages from Iran. During the strike Reagan wanted to exude machismo, especially to the 250,000 mail carriers who were testing the strike waters.

Labor Suffers a Blow
Independent film producer Stephanie Saxe, 13 years old at the time of the walkout, recently completed a documentary about the Patco strike called Blacklist of the Skies, referring to the banning of all strikers from any government employment for nearly 12 years after the strike. In 1993 then-President Bill Clinton issued an opportunity for the FAA to rehire Patco controllers. Of the 5,500 who applied, 546 were accepted.
Saxe, whose father headed Patco’s representation at the Newport News, Va. tower at the time, recalls the months before the strike. “I knew my father and his coworkers were planning something that would bring them into conflict with the U.S. government. I thought if my father felt this strongly about the issues, enough to protest against the government, it would all be fine.”

Shostak studied the Patco strike closely. “I was moonlighting at the AFL-CIO George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Spring, Md., now the National Labor College, in 1980 when I met two Patco chaps trying to write a questionnaire to probe attitudes among 14,000 members. I volunteered to help them, and was soon on the payroll as their survey specialist. I created four national surveys and got almost 95 percent cooperation, which enabled me to forecast that more than 80 percent would strike if necessary. Eighty-three percent did walk.”

While almost 12,000 people lost their livelihoods, the impact of the Patco strike on the American labor movement was far greater than on the aviation industry. The strike “grievously wounded the labor movement and it has yet to recover,” Shostak says. “It exposed the notion of a general strike on behalf of any one union for the empty fantasy it has long been. It encouraged virulent employers to employ permanent striker replacements, much as did the FAA. It showed once again that certain amoral workers will cross picket lines and take the jobs of strikers. It also proved the willingness of the federal government to seek decertification of a federal union rather than permit it to make amends for any alleged misconduct. Above all, it put union-management relations on a track labeled war. It was a disaster for all in business and labor who prefer cooperation to conflict, and was a major error of the Reagan Administration.”

Strike Fallout Remains
Morale at ATC facilities around the country is poor today–even worse than in 1981, according to Marlin. Natca says controllers are increasingly treated as commodities. She says the FAA’s current financial strategies are also shortsighted. “The FAA is looking only at ways to cut costs,” to the exclusion of considering overall value. “It is important to have people who are futurists, people who can drive the technology,” she added.

Of J. Lynn Helms, FAA Administrator during the Patco strike, Marlin said, “Helms thought there would be a totally automated ATC system that would rid the agency forever of personnel problems. While we didn’t get that, we did get the advanced automation system, which turned out to be a failure. But we also got incremental technology changes during the years, especially during the Clinton era.” She added, “ATC of today could not handle the traffic today if we still had only the system of 1981.”

Don Brown, a current controller and safety rep for Natca, said there is little institutional memory today from the 1981 strike. “Those guys grew up hand-writing strips, working non-radar and working broadband radar. They watched the system grow and become automated. They knew the reasons behind the rules. They could look behind the technology and still see the fundamental logic of the system. For my generation, post-1981, it has never been more than magic. It’s hard for us to remember in this day and age how sophisticated all this seemed in the 1980s before personal computers.

“But the real problem is that we didn’t understand how it all worked. Not the technology, but the system. And the FAA never had time to teach it. It was too busy re-staffing the system. When you train to full performance level in two-and-a-half years instead of five, you have to cut corners. That loss of institutional memory is about to happen again. When the Administrator talks of speeding up the training process she doesn’t mention the cost. And there is a cost. It’s just not obvious to most people.”

To many who remember the strike of 1981, the FAA’s current stance with Natca about controller contracts is reminiscent of the environment 25 years ago, despite the fact that Natca has a no-strike clause in its constitution. The relationship between the FAA and the union is characterized by “arms-length relations, mutual distrust, sniping in the media and heightened tensions in the workplace,” said Shostak.

Marlin added, “We had a lot of participation in reinventing government under Bill Clinton. We were operating under an Executive Order, in fact, that demanded better participation between government managers and workers. President Bush cancelled that order 27 days into his presidency.”

Lessons from the Strike
Did anyone learn anything from the Patco strike? If anyone at the FAA learned a lesson, they’re not telling. The FAA declined requests from AIN to discuss the agency’s perspective on the Patco strike or issues about the current state of FAA/controller relations based upon the experiences of that job action. Shostak believes the union movement learned quite a bit. “A union should stay embedded in good relations with organized labor.” Patco did not and paid the ultimate price.

“Natca, however, can count on the considerable political support of those in Congress still responsive to the voice of the AFL-CIO,” he said. “A union of air traffic controllers should also not expect the public to understand or sympathize with their case. They must tell their story to key Congressional figures and members of the business community who fear any disturbance in air travel. Even if the public cannot be counted on completely, it must be appealed to because its seeming neutrality, or even slight support, can help the union significantly.”

“I think we look at things more broadly than Patco,” Marlin said when asked what Natca took from 1981. “We are now externally focused.” Natca represents other FAA professionals, including engineers, architects and aircraft certification specialists as well as 87 percent of current working controllers.

“Dealing only with your employers as a federal employee is limited. We have a lot of expertise and knowledge to share with the people who are building the system and hope to be in on the debate. We also believe user fees are an inherently unstable funding scheme but that the airlines have cut a deal with the FAA to stay quiet on costs to get those fees.”

Shostak believes, “Much goodwill earned by the previous Clinton appointee has now been squandered and the hard-nosed FAA types who damned that Administrator for giving away the store and letting the animals run the zoo are now back in power. The players of FAA management have changed, but the mentality has not.”

Peeking over the horizon today is a staffing shortage due to potential controller retirements that some assert the FAA refuses to acknowledge. Natca figures show that the FAA hired 500 new controllers in 2004. The agency has not yet shared hiring numbers for last year and this. “They should hire 2,000 right now just to keep pace with potential retirements,” Marlin said. “But even if they did they don’t have the training capacity to handle that number.”

Controller pay cuts are part of the contract the FAA plans to require. The new contract will start trainees at significantly lower wages than previous controllers in a sort of FAA B-scale, much like the cost control plan American Airlines eliminated 15 years ago after deeming it unworkable. These cuts will likely affect the kinds of people who compete for ATC jobs in the future. “Even today applicants are saying no to this job,” said Marlin. “The highest-performing applicants in the screening programs are saying they have other options.”

She says the lack of an institutional memory will soon haunt the FAA as it finds itself unable to live with the conditions it wants to impose on the controller workforce. “If you don’t staff the operation, you can’t do anything else. You can’t refine and improve; you can’t train because all of your resources try to keep the system running. There were 18,000 controllers before the strike and now there are 14,000. Certainly there are now contract towers. In 2001, we had 15,000 controllers and we were snug. Ground delays now are for saturation of sectors, not just airports. We are way above the traffic of 2001. The FAA calls this productivity.”

Natca has the advantage of learning much from its predecessor. Marlin said, “Good public policy depends upon open dialogue, not a culture of secrecy. Our government should not be making covert decisions about its aviation system.”

As one Patco member said early in 1981, “A strike against the government is only illegal if you lose.” There is little doubt too that 12,000 workers with the courage of their conviction violated their employment oath on Aug. 3, 1981. Diehard Constitutionalists might well miss the long-term message from 25 years ago; however, it is one that has come back to haunt the current controller’s union today, as well as other labor organizations. An oath and a no-strike clause surely address the letter of the law but they avoid the spirit of that social/legal contract.

The ability of an employee group to withhold its labor from an employer dates back almost as far as people and history books can remember. Government employees gave up that right when they accepted their current positions, and Natca confirmed that “no strike” will occur by stating that in its constitution.

Earlier this year, the FAA tried a previously unused tactic by sending the unresolved controller contract to a Congress so overburdened with other duties that it was a foregone conclusion that the legislative body would take no action. Inaction on the Hill bestowed upon the FAA the right to unilaterally impose the new agreement on the controllers’ union.

The FAA blinked in June when Marion Blakey and her senior advisors decided to delay the imposition of the contract for now, suggesting that the employees must have some leverage. The question, though, is this: without the ability to withhold their services in some form and with the FAA already having shown the union the door in the current negotiations, do the members of Natca or any other government union have any power of persuasion over their employer?