Saturday, April 04, 2009

Our Place in History

History isn’t written in a day. Like a movie script, it can go through numerous rewrites. To carry the analogy even further, it can even be remade after many years.

These are my thoughts after reading yet another story where the PATCO strike was cited as a turning point in our history. This time it was in an article from David Broder in The Washington Post.

Obama's Muscle Moment

In my early 20s at the time, I had no idea that the PATCO strike would be a defining moment in our history. Even as an air traffic controller, I didn’t grasp its full impact. I knew it was a defining event in the profession. That was easy to understand. It only dawned on me slowly that it was such a significant event in U.S. history. I still can’t imagine that it will retain much significance in the long run -- but who knows ?

Anyway, Mr. Broder compares President Obama’s termination of Richard Wagoner -- CEO of General Motors -- with Reagan’s firing of PATCO.

”It was a catastrophe for organized labor because it stiffened the resistance of many private employers to unionization. But for Reagan it was all benefit. He had always been well liked. But he had never been feared -- until he broke the PATCO strike. From that point on, Democrats and Republicans alike thought twice about challenging him.

It is possible, I think, that ousting Wagoner and the GM directors will have a similar effect for Obama -- but only if he enforces his other deadlines and conditions. “

I’m sure there are more than a few CEOs mulling over those implications right now. If they are smart, there are 14,000 air traffic controllers thinking long and hard about it. Here’s a really old piece of advice: Be careful what you wish for.

NATCA has been beating the drum that they want to “return to the bargaining table.” They have a perfectly valid point that their previous contract was to remain in force until a new one was negotiated. Ex-FAA Administrator Blakey will be judged for breaking that contract. President George W. Bush will take a hit for letting Blakey break the word of the U.S. Government. But considering what else history has in store for him, he’s probably not losing much sleep over it.

Back to the controllers. NATCA is asking to “return to the bargaining table” during the worst economic crisis since the Depression and negotiate with a guy that just fired the CEO of GM. Furthermore, it is doing so with a membership that is highly fractured, inexperienced and thoroughly demoralized. Good luck with that NATCA.

For the new controllers out there, now is the time to start learning and observing. There are fundamental truths in the profession of air traffic control. First, the union is not in control of the workforce. You are a prime example of that. If the FAA wants to hire ex-military controllers to foster a militaristic atmosphere, there isn’t much you can do about it. Likewise, if they want to hire college students to groom for management, there isn’t much you can do about it.

Well, actually there is but you run up against another truth. Thinking of air traffic control in terms of a profession -- with a long-term view -- is tough for guys with such short careers. Face it. When you’re young you don’t care. When you’re middle-aged, you’re too busy (work and family) and when you’re old...well, you’re no longer a controller. The obvious solution is that you’ll have to put somebody with a longer view in charge and that means someone that isn’t a controller. We all know the odds of that happening are slim. You might want to look at pro sports for a model. They have the same problems. Incredibly talented individuals that have very short careers. A medical problem and you’re out. And at least in some sense, lose the support of the “fans” and you’re done.

If you don’t learn anything else from me you can take that last point to the bank. I’ve said it a dozen different ways, a dozen different times. A controller’s best interest is in protecting the Public’s best interest. It is a duty you should rank above the FAA and your coworkers. It isn’t always clear and it is rarely easy. But if you’re ever in any doubt about what course to follow -- and you will be -- follow that one. It’s as clear as “Safety Above All”. You’re a public employee, first and foremost. Keep that first and everything else will fall into place.

Don Brown
April 4, 2009

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