In 1981, Ronald Reagan showed the Russkies and American labor leaders that the U.S. was going to crack down on progressive, pro-labor organizations. Targeting labor unions, he fired the entire membership of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) - all 13,000 of them.
The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 outlaws strikes by certain government employees. In 1981, PATCO dared to strike for better pay and lower hours, citing air safety concerns due to overworked and fatigued workers. Only twelve years before that, PATCO had won a victory over the FAA and the Nixon administration with a carefully orchestrated "sickout". They won a big pay raise and recognition as a union. But Reagan, flush with neo-conservative fervor, and conflating American labor with anti-communism, destroyed the PATCO union, declaring a lifetime ban on rehiring striking controllers, and inaugurating a period of labor decline that has not abated in a generation.
Now it's 2007, and a new air traffic controller labor union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), is fighting back against a contract imposed upon it by the FAA a year ago. According to an Associated Press article yesterday:
The FAA-imposed contract cut starting pay by 30 percent, eliminated incentive pay for experienced controllers and gave managers more authority over staffing. Since last September, controllers have filed 220,000 grievances....
Brown said the agency has long known that 72 percent of its controllers become eligible to retire in the next decade. Most controllers were hired after President Ronald Reagan in 1981 fired more than 11,000 members of a predecessor union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, after it refused to end an illegal strike.
Controller Burn-out Threatens Air Safety
Meanwhile, air controllers are retiring or resigning in waves. Over 800 retirements are expected this year, while the FAA is hiring new controllers as fast as it can. The government also touts a very record low number of fatalities on commercial aircraft the past three years --.017 per 100,000 departures. For its part, NATCA cites some recent events, including six near-misses on busy runways in the past year. In Cleveland:
Operational errors — in which planes fly closer than they are supposed to — soared to 34 this fiscal year, with a month left, compared to 16 in fiscal 2006.
In Chicago, "the center has recorded 21 operation errors for the fiscal year, compared to 12 the previous year". And elsewhere:
In New York, southern California and Charlotte, N.C., on-the-job training of controllers was temporarily suspended this summer to evaluate a rash of errors....
"These errors are the calling cards of mental fatigue," said Chicago Center controller Bryan Zilonis, a union vice president. "The FAA is slowly burning out their most experienced controllers due to their inability to properly staff positions at many facilities."
You're doing a heckava job, Blakey
For her part, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey talks about billions of dollars in savings, and the introduction of a new "multi-billion-dollar NextGen plan to replace radar control with more precise satellite tracking so planes can fly closer", due to come online in ... 2013! And we know how well the government estimates time for completion for its varied projects.
Daily Kos blogger Blue Eyed Buddhist wrote about the potential corruption behind the FAA's machinations, as Blakey set up the NextGen contract with ITT only days before announcing she would leave FAA to become the President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA). Not surprisingly, ITT Corporation is a member of AIA. As Blue Eyed Buddhist pointed out:
So 9 days after she's announced as the next CEO of AIA, Blakey's agency hands out an 18-year contract worth billions of dollars to a company that indirectly employs her at over a half-million dollars a year.
Is there a congressional investigation in the works? Not that I know of. Is there an outraged spate of editorials emanating from our nation's watchdogs, the press? Again, silence, so far as I can see. It's business as usual in the land of the free hand for capital, and home of the feckless labor opposition.
The Legacy of PATCO & the Fight for an Independent Labor Movement
In 1981, Reagan threw the gauntlet down to the unions in this country. It didn't help PATCO that, along with the Teamsters, in an act of stunning stupidity, they supported Reagan for president only a year before. It also didn't help PATCO workers that, despite a lot of fiery rhetoric from union leaders at Labor Day picnics across the country, concrete action in the form of sympathy strikes or even honoring picket lines at the airports were notable by their absence. Union pilots and machinists crossed PATCO picket lines, only to suffer their own ignominious defeats in contracts and labor actions of their own in the decades that followed.
The labor movement in 2007 sits at the nadir of its influence. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
In 2006, 12.0 percent of employed wage and salary workers were union members, down from 12.5 percent a year earlier.... The number of persons belonging to a union fell by 326,000 in 2006 to 15.4 million. The union membership rate has steadily declined from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available.
While there are sporadic signs of union activism and pugnacious leadership, the overall picture for labor is not pretty, as labor organizations remain mired in subservience to electoral politics and afraid of union militancy. (Is there even one Democratic presidential candidate that will call for the repeal of the anti-worker Taft-Hartley Act?) The split of the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union from the AFL-CIO back in 2005 did not bring about any new militant stance by organized labor.
It will take a new generation of union leaders with an ideology steeped in the independent action of workers before things turn around. Such an ideology could be built on the premise that those who own the means of production, those who rule the institutions of society and impose no-strike laws upon hard-working men and women, that these people have nothing politically in common with those who work for a living, who don't control anything but their minds, their hands, and their hearts. It could start with a return to real, effective labor solidarity, and the inviolability of picket lines.
The ghosts of PATCO call upon the workers of NATCA, crying out to be remembered, for all of labor to learn the lessons of 1981, and to begin the fight for a new, reinvigorated, and powerful labor movement.