Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Milestone to Mark



In case it might have escaped your notice, on Saturday -- May 30th -- it will have been 1,000 days since Marion Blakey imposed her contract work rules on the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Just to refresh your memory, she did it on Labor Day, 2006. She was sending a message, of course. Unfortunately, NATCA did not send one back. Not effectively anyway.

Perhaps I’m belaboring a moot point. Perhaps not. I urged NATCA to strike back when the Bush Administration was still in office. Making a statement now would probably be counterproductive. The Obama Administration is making a good-faith effort to rectify this situation. There doesn’t appear to be a need for NATCA to share its displeasure with the public at the moment. However, in the future, you can be assured that there will be.

The anti-union elements of American society have not fallen by the wayside. I seriously doubt that the Republican Party is mortally wounded. There is a chance that it is...but I wouldn’t bet on it. There will be a time in the future when NATCA will be challenged again. And the lesson its foes will learn from reviewing this period of history are not promising for NATCA.

In the greater scheme of things, NATCA isn’t important. Air Traffic Controllers are. So are unions. And so is the National Airspace System. It is perhaps easiest to prove that point by highlighting the negative aspects of this struggle. Historians now recognize the PATCO strike in 1981 as a milestone for labor relations in America.

The Reagan Administration established a new climate. After PATCO, employers regularly wielded replacement workers as a weapon in labor disputes. Management shunned negotiation in favor of bare-fisted confrontation. Union busting became a billion-dollar business for consultants and lawyers who advised companies on how to thwart organizers. The National Labor Relations Board, formerly a neutral body that oversaw the nation’s labor practices, turned overtly anti-union under Reagan, studiously ignoring labor-law violations by corporate managers and letting cases linger for years without resolution.

If a group of people have the capacity to cause that much harm, they have the capacity to do much good.

I have faith that the Obama Administration will come up with an equitable settlement to the current impasse with NATCA. It would be unwise for NATCA to view it as anything more than a gracious reprieve. While looking after the interests of air traffic controllers is NATCA’s main function, I believe it has a higher duty. A duty to the profession and a duty to the country. As I’ve said so many times, a public servant’s best interest is in serving the Public’s best interests.

I once received some advice I hated but it might be useful in making my point clear. “In order to do good, you must first do well.” In other words, if you want to be able to make a real difference in the world -- through charitable donations or whatever -- you must first become wealthy so that you can concentrate your attention (if not your money) on the things that matter. Personally, I reject the philosophy even though I get the point. Rockefeller, Ford and Gates have all had a big impact with their charity work. The charity part would never have come about without taking care of business first.

NATCA needs to take care of controllers so that controllers can take care of business. Controller compensation needs to be high to attract the appropriate talent. The talent needs to concentrate on the job. Part of that job -- part of the social contract with the Public -- should be that controllers look after the National Airspace System (NAS) from their unique perspective. As damaging as the imposed work rules have been to controllers, it is nothing when compared to how damaging the lack of controller input has been to NextGen and the NAS as a whole.

You can make a controller that suffered a pay cut “whole” again with a little bit of money. You can’t do the same for the profession. Nor the system. Thousands upon thousands of years worth of experience has walked out the door in these last 1,000 days. It is irreplaceable -- just as it was after the PATCO strike. It will take 20 years to recover -- if the Government works at it. I know. I’ve seen it first hand.

NextGen -- just like the Advanced Automation System before it -- will be a bureaucratic disaster. In large part, it will be because the profession that has the expertise needed to make it work was cut out of the project by Marion Blakey and her imposed work rules.

The new crop of controller trainees are clueless about these matters -- just as my generation was clueless after the PATCO strike. Many of the older controllers still left -- and most of the aviation industry -- think we have just suffered through an ugly period in labor relations. But some of us -- and it should include all of the FAA and NATCA leadership -- realize that we have suffered so much more. We have allowed the profession, the National Airspace System and the United States of America to suffer irreparable harm.

The fact that we are unable to articulate the problem clearly does not absolve us. Those that try to console themselves that NATCA -- unlike PATCO -- remained within the law miss the point. The damage is just as great, no matter the legalities or who gets the blame. History will not judge us kindly.

Don Brown
May 28, 2009

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