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  Issue No 105 Official Organ of LaborNet 03 August 2001  

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History

Hard-Earned Lessons


Art Shostack looks at the legacy of the landmark strike by PATCO air traffic controllers 20 years ago.

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With over a billion air travellers expected annually by 2010, and with far too little runaway space, far too many delays, and no tech "silver bullet" expected soon, the situation promises traveler gains and "runway rage" alike. Any progress in reducing gridlock and upgrading the quality of air travel may pivot in large part on how we resolve a 20-year-old strike still with us in many taxing ways.

Twenty years ago on August 3, 1981, PATCO Air Traffic Controllers manned picket lines at National and other airports, thereby beginning the best-known, costliest (in careers and dollars), and most consequential labor-management dispute in post-War American history ... one from which we are still trying to extract ourselves.

Over 85%, or 12,500 of 14,000 eligible federal controllers, struck, and 11,345 of them were almost immediately thereafter fired and blacklisted (12 years!) from careers they loved and jobs they had been born to perform. PATCO, their feisty 13-year old union, was fined out of existence ($34 million), and decertified, the only such federal union ever permanently punished this way. PATCO's arch enemy, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), gleefully got itself a union-free environment. The nation's air travelers got record-setting cancellations and delays, the economy got a battering, Congress got a lot of heat, and air travel safety got severely challenged for many months thereafter. Trust between Labor and Management was dealt so severe a blow by the Jihad "crush Labor!" mentality of the Reagan White House and the FAA as to leave it wounded to this day.

Now, on the strike's 20th anniversary, we ask what can we learn from the '81 Gotterdammerung ? How can we prevent any like "crashes"? Honor the victims (strikers and air travelers alike)? Bolster the safety and reliability of air travel? And encourage a culture of cooperation, rather than conflict at work?

Having assisted PATCO as a survey researcher for 18 months before the '81 strike, and having stayed in touch with many ex-controllers, I'd like to think we have learned at least three lessons: In severe industrial conflicts the ability to do one's job is the real issue. Second, labels like "winner" and "loser" are meaningless. And third, only cooperation makes the best"flight plan" possible.

The 1981 strike was not about money, or about honoring an (oft-broken) Oath not to strike, as was alleged by the media. It was about a situation that had become untenable, at least for professionals who took their life-protecting responsibilities seriously. The bulk of PATCOs' 96 contract issues focused on threats to air traveler safety; e.g., old radar equipment urgently needed replacing. Inordinate stress made accidents probable. Harsh disrespectful leadership undermined morale and fostered retaliation. A fundamental lack of mutual respect poisoned everything, and made it difficult for controllers to do their job.

Second, strikes do not have stark winners or losers as much as different types of long-term casualties. PATCO "losers," thanks to extraordinary efforts by their own advocacy group, Controllers United, aided by the AFL-CIO, finally persuaded President Clinton in 1993 to lift the blacklist ban on re-employment. Now possibly "winners" (at least if recall speeds up), PATCO stalwarts also have the grim satisfaction of knowing the FAA's' new 10-year modernization plan is rich in reform ideas championed by PATCO twenty years ago.

Similarly, the FAA was a self-styled big "winner" in '81 for having gotten free of unionization. But it looked quite the sap when, after six years of doing things its own ill-conceived way (a bizarre mix of wimpy paternalism and military authoritarianism), a new union (NATCA) rose in phoenix-like from the ashes. Its founding members in '87 had many of the same grievances as had PATCO. So much for the title of "winner" and the costly illusion that top-down management can escape the price of its own excesses.

Accordingly, the third lesson from the '81 "aluminum shower" is that when the parties are truly inter-dependent, only cooperation really clears them for "takeoff." NATCA, while no less protective than PATCO of its members (and of the air traveler), has achieved a constructive relationship with a much better-led FAA. In 1998, for example, the parties agreed to employ alternative dispute resolution options that have helped reduce arbitrations from 38 that year, to 31 in 1999, and only five last year. (Jane Garvey, FAA administrator, explains, "It's a step-by-step approach. We need to stay focused and do it together to obtain success. It won't work if it's done in isolation.")

A work in progress, the relationship of mutual respect has the parties intent on lessening gridlock (compounded by a severe shortage of runways), remaining the world's safest system (73 million safe operations last year), and staving off cockamamie calls for privatization heard since 1981 in every GOP White House, a pro-greed threat to the union, the FAA, and the nation's 665 million annual air travelers alike.

In the ongoing process of redressing mistakes made in '81, recall remains an especially costly sore point. Eight long years after rehiring became possible only 836 of 4,988 original applicants have been brought back. While in 1994 some 78% of all new rehires were PATCO (37 en toto), the figure in 2000 was only 10%. AFSME PATCO Local 6881 and Controllers United are keeping up rehiring pressure, even as NATCA helps by insisting a minimum of 25% of new hires be drawn from the PATCO waiting list.

On this tragic 20th anniversary, friends of the nation's air traffic control system want to vector a "flight path" that hastens re-employment, models progressive labor-management relations, blocks reckless calls for privatization, and substantially upgrades the system - much as PATCO always sought.


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*   Issue 105 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Whose Advocate?
Employment Advocate Jonathon Hamberger argues the case for his organisation's survival and reveals his secret union past.
*
*  Politics: CHOGM: What Should Unions Do?
Activists Peter Murphy and Vince Caughley kick off the debate about what is the appropriate action ot take when CHOGM leaders meet in Brisbane
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*  E-Change: 2.1 - The Changing Corporate Landscape
In the second part of their series on the impact of new technology, Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel try to understand the new corporate playing field.
*
*  Unions: Hamburgled
Jim Marr reports that the Employment Advocate has been handed a chance to salvage some credibility by cleaning up anti-union practices in the call centre industry.
*
*  Economics: Privatisation: The Dangerous Road
Frank Stilwell argues that the corporate collapses of HIH and One Tel are potent reminders of the downside of ‘people’s capitalism’.
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*  History: Hard-Earned Lessons
Art Shostack looks at the legacy of the landmark strike by PATCO air traffic controllers 20 years ago.
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*  International: Political Prisoner
Greenpeace campaigner Nic Clyde, facing up to six years gaol in the United States for taking part in a non-violent protest, speaks exclusively with workers Online.
*
*  Review: Seven Pubs and Seven Nights
Labor Council's newest recruit, Susan Sheather, shows she respects tradition by going in search of the perfect bar
*
*  Satire: Obituary: Mr Rob Cartwright - Captain of Industry
In all fields of endeavour, there are those who command our respect through their sheer commitment to excellence. One such titan was Rob Cartwright, whose chosen field, the obscure HR discipline of "moving people onto individual contracts" lost its greatest practitioner and champion late last night, following a tragic self-inflicted accident.
*

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Letters to the editor
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»  Concerns About Members Equity
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