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An excerpt from
Against the Wind

Sitting amid the darkness of Washington Center in Leesburg, Virginia, an air traffic controller spoke incessantly into the tiny microphone of his headset. His accent revealed the soft twang of the West Virginian hills, but his strong, confident voice cut through the air like the boom of a howitzer.

Despite his cocky demeanor, his restless eyes darted repeatedly across the radarscope before him, its round screen lit up like a pinball machine in the dazzling throes of a bonus round. Twenty-two green blips flashed and danced on the glass while two stacks of airplanes pirouetted in unison over Woodstown in southwestern New Jersey and Yardley, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. The aerial ballet formed the swirling headwaters of a river that streamed northeast across his scope—and through his mind—before flowing on to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Jerry Tierney’s hands were full on this day in 1984. Besides the rush of planes, he was grappling with the aftershocks of a cataclysmic strike that wiped out three-quarters of the air traffic control work force in August 1981. Chronic low staffing frequently forced controllers to juggle more than one portion of airspace at a time. Tierney was riding herd over the Woodstown and Dupont sectors. Like many of his brethren, he was also toiling through yet another grueling six-day workweek.

Sporting a bushy head of dark brown hair, neatly cropped above the ears, and wearing his usual button-down shirt and slacks, the medium-built Tierney had earned a well-deserved reputation as one of Washington Center’s finest controllers. Colleagues respected his honest, sincere attitude and strong work ethic, and they cheered his zero tolerance for nonsensical edicts from management.

In his largely unseen world, where professionals balance the science of physics with the art of choreography, a thin line separates chaos from control. Good controllers know their limits. They can sense when one more plane will propel them into the abyss and scatter their concentration like a collapsing house of cards. Tierney had been pushing tin for sixteen years and could tell he was nearing the edge of the precipice. There was nowhere else to stack planes in the north while they waited for their turn to land. He called another controller at the center to briefly shut off the relentless streams from Maryland and Virginia in the south.

Seated behind him, a supervisor snapped to attention and leaned forward. “We’ve got to get them in,” he said.

“I’m not taking them,” Tierney responded, his eyes raking over the scope as he plotted his next several moves.

The supervisor’s voice grew edgy. “You have to accept those aircraft.”

Under pressure from Congress and the airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration was publicly proclaiming that the air traffic system had fully recovered from the strike. After enduring a period of cutbacks, the airlines published thicker timetables month by month, testing the limits of a largely inexperienced work force only half as big as in 1981. This was where the rubber met the runway.

“No,” Tierney said firmly. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not safe. I know how many aircraft I can handle.”

Preoccupied with the twenty-two targets hopping across his scope, Tierney did not notice the supervisor slide over to the keyboard at the data position next to him. His superior typed the computer ID codes for two or three more planes from the south and pressed ENTER after each number, transferring responsibility for them to Tierney. One by one, the pilots checked in on his radio frequency.

Suddenly realizing what was happening, Tierney exclaimed, “Hey, why am I talking to these guys?”1

Fortunately, no near misses occurred.

Incidents like this, although more serious than most at the time, typified the tumultuous culture of an air traffic system staggering back to its feet after a reeling blow. The Reagan administration’s dismissal of more than 11,000 federal employees—who broke the law by walking off the job—ranks as one of the most regrettable chapters in aviation history. Careers, families, even a few lives were lost in a complex showdown of egos, greed, and legitimate air safety and workplace issues.

For those who stayed on the job and the legions of replacement controllers who joined them, an unfortunate sequel awaited. More than half the world’s air traffic flew in the United States, creating an immense challenge for the FAA to restore its decimated work force.

Aside from the sheer numbers of people involved, time pressures weighed heavily on the system. New controllers typically spent several months at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, followed by two or more years of on-the-job training before they were considered fully qualified. Even then, the seasoning process had barely begun.

But adversity also presented a singular possibility.

“The FAA had a golden opportunity to treat the new group of controllers well and never have to face organization,” says Alexander “Doc” Cullison, former president of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, a labor union that has supported air traffic controllers. “They had a malleable, optimistic work force that they could have done anything in the world with if they had treated them properly.”

It was not to be.

During a brief honeymoon, managers and rank and file worked side by side in a heroic effort to keep the traffic moving. The harmony was short-lived, however, with an agency that could not shake off its past habits.

As the turbulence subsided for the transition force, too many autocratic managers reverted to their former roles. Controllers’ complaints about excessive time on position, inadequate staffing, hasty training, and unreliable equipment were, for the most part, dismissed as whining. Suggestions on operational procedures and new equipment were rarely solicited and usually ignored. Yelling, intimidation, and a fundamental lack of respect became commonplace. Once again, managers relegated the front-line crew to the status of hired hands rather than acknowledging them as partners in providing air safety.

By refusing to accept any responsibility for conditions that led to the strike and allowing the same problems to fester, the agency sowed new seeds of discontent that inevitably blossomed into another union.

Howie Barte, a founder of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, notes that many people were involved in the grass-roots effort to form the new organization. But, he adds, “No one could hold a candle to the best organizer we ever had—the FAA.”

NATCA Takes Flight

On the morning of May 6, 1987, a single-engine plane towing a white banner with black lettering droned above the vast Dallas Metroplex. The cryptic inscription on the banner—“Vote NATCA”—left many who saw it scratching their heads. But its intended audience understood the message and stood proud. Ballots had just been mailed across the country to more than 12,500 controllers, who would decide whether to officially sanction a labor organization that had been in the making for more than three years.

At Love Field in Dallas, the control tower manager expressed astonishment as he peered through binoculars at the streaming pennant. Standing nearby in the cramped glassed-in cab, where water leaked through the ceiling tiles when it rained, controller Ed Mullin could not resist chuckling. As a regional representative for the fledgling group, Mullin had devised the banner ploy to boost voter turnout in the decidedly anti-union state of Texas. If controllers saw their name in lights, so to speak, the recognition might convince them that NATCA had a chance to succeed. A satisfied smile played on Mullin’s lips while he watched the plane disappear to the south for a pass over Redbird Airport.

The hour-long flight also called for appearances above Addison Airport, Fort Worth Meacham Airport, the perimeter of Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, Fort Worth Center, and the FAA Regional Office south of DFW. Although weather precluded flying over a few of the destinations, the banner scored a hit with controllers.

Five weeks later, their sentiments were quantified when the government tallied ballots from 86 percent of the work force. Seventy percent approved NATCA as their exclusive bargaining agent. The new union, formed while President Reagan still occupied the White House, allowed air traffic controllers to reclaim their voice in the workplace and provided organized labor with a much-needed comeback victory.

John Leyden, the long­time president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization who was ousted in a coup before the strike, believes the achievement is a testament to the FAA and labor in general. “If you could have a union—like the phoenix—rebuilt, it was a great sign for the need for unions,” he says.

A Walk in the Woods

Eleven years later, in early July 1998, four people gathered around a table in a Montréal hotel conference room. NATCA President Michael McNally and his predecessor, Barry Krasner, sat on one side. FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and Tony Herman, a high-powered Washington, D.C., attorney, faced them on the other side.

The 20-minute meeting, aimed at closing the deal on the union’s third contract with the agency, represented the culmination of a momentous journey. The groundwork for this gathering included eighteen months of bargaining preparations and talks, an exhaustive seven-year project to reclassify all air traffic control facility rankings and their accompanying salary scales, and a concerted legislative effort by the union that enabled NATCA and the FAA to abandon the traditional government compensation schedule and negotiate pay.

This crowning achievement would shortly put the federal-sector union and its employer in the ranks of a very select group that included such agencies as the U.S. Postal Service and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

At issue this morning was the amount of money the FAA would pay 15,000 controllers under the new facility classification system. McNally and Herman haggled over millions of dollars while Krasner and Garvey observed in silence. Finally, Herman offered $200 million.

The two NATCA negotiators briefly consulted before McNally turned to the administrator and said, “You’ve got a deal, Jane.”

NATCA’s five-year contract with the agency resulted in substantial pay raises for controllers. More significantly, it was the first time they were compensated for the complexity of their work—not just simple traffic counts—while other provisions bound them ever more tightly as partners with the FAA to ensure air safety and boost productivity.

“We had to change the relationship between management and labor in order to meet the challenges,” Garvey says. Acknowledging that some trust issues still need to be resolved in light of the agency’s difficult history with its controller work force, she adds, “On balance, there are more places where the relationship is more positive than negative.”

The 1998 contract also represented another highlight in the union’s relatively short but noteworthy history.

Earlier in the year, the AFL-CIO granted NATCA a direct charter. The powerful labor organization preferred to consolidate its vast array of affiliates and had reserved this honor for a mere handful since NATCA was certified. The union cherished the recognition, vindicating the once-tarnished reputation of controllers in the house of organized labor.

Founded on the premise of gaining a voice in the workplace, NATCA has evolved into what controllers like to think of as a white-collar union that shuns strong-arm tactics. Top officers enjoy regular access to the agency’s administrator—a hard-won victory that finally ensures the union’s issues are clearly communicated to the upper echelon. And while equipment and procedures historically have been implemented with little or no controller input, twenty-nine union liaisons and technical representatives now work full time—virtually all of them at agency headquarters—on about sixty-five projects.

NATCA’s role extends beyond the aviation community and the nation’s borders. Members contribute about $1 million every election cycle to a Political Action Committee fund—the second-highest average per member of all union PACs—that is passed along to both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.* One of its former National Executive Board members serves as deputy president of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations, an influential body that deals with the profession’s issues on a global level. Two other union members serve on IFATCA committees.

Taking its charge of organizing the unorganized seriously, NATCA has affiliated nineteen new bargaining units beyond its controller ranks and now represents about 20,000 FAA workers—including engineers and architects, computer specialists, inspectors, nurses, staff support personnel, and others—as well as some controllers in the Defense Department and at towers run by private companies. Seventy-five percent of represented workers are union members (including 82 percent of FAA controllers), an exceedingly high level in the federal sector.

At its core, a thousand or more dedicated activists serve as facility representatives, on local executive boards, regional and national committees, and in numerous other capacities to guide NATCA on aviation and workplace safety issues, legislative affairs, finance, communications, constitutional matters, and such.

“It is on their shoulders that we have built our successes,” Executive Vice President Ruth Marlin says.

NATCA’s first national president and executive vice president walked into a largely empty office, hired staff members, bought furnishings and fax machines, and launched the union into flight. As the organization grew, its leadership evolved, too. Each subsequent administration adroitly adapted to the times and carried NATCA forward.

In 2000, the union moved into its own seven-floor headquarters in Washington. The spacious building is a far cry from the cramped quarters it had leased across town at the offices of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association in 1987. Working conditions there were so tight that NATCA’s director of labor relations conducted business from a converted closet in the president’s office.

While NATCA rose from the ashes of its predecessor, the new union has charted its own course and achieved unique successes. Even so, both organizations trace their roots to very similar motivations and ideals.

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Copyright © 2002
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
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from the publisher.