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I went on strike...

and I'm still on strike, 30 years later.

PATCO, the air traffic controllers' union, went on strike on August 3, 1981. The air traffic controller workforce was (and probably still is) predominantly composed of ex-military controllers - probably to the tune of about 80-85%. I was one of the minority: I took a civil service exam, was hired in 1974, went to school for two weeks in Oklahoma City, then six months of on-the-job training at Springfield, Missouri and suddenly, I was an air traffic controller.

Six years later, a hot new politician was running for President. He was a former union leader, had even led a strike himself once. It didn't take much effort for the PATCO leaders to convince the membership to support this "renegade" candidate - a former union leader, lately elected as a Republican governor of a very liberal state. He had union credentials; he needed union support; we had promises that someone would pay attention to the safety issues we were raising; and, oh yeah, his campaign promised that we would get raises because the job we did was crucial to the air industry.

Now, you might ask, what were those safety issues? There were many, but probably our work schedule was the main problem. For instance, I would start my workweek on a Wednesday afternoon at 4pm and work until midnight. On Thursday after fourteen hours off, I would come in at 2 pm and work until 10pm. The next morning, Friday, after ten hours off, I would come back at 8am and work until 4pm. Saturday morning after fourteen hours off, I would start at 6am and work until 2pm, then after ten hours off, come back at midnight and work until 8am Sunday and then, hallelujah, I was off until Wednesday afternoon at 4pm. A whole three days and eight hours off - in a row.

Sounds like a great deal, doesn't it? Three days plus eight hours off every week as opposed to other jobs where you had only two days and sixteen hours off - a whole extra 16 hours off every week! Whoopee!

When pilots flew this kind of schedule, they were affected by a problem known as circadian desynchronization because of the altered sleep patterns. This was deemed to affect their health in a negative way and so they were paid a considerable amount of money at that time because everybody knows money solves every problem.

Controllers were expected to just suck it up.

But, of course, we had spouses and significant others and family. Their schedule and ours didn't exactly mesh all the time. And for those spouses and significant others who worked as well, the schedules didn't mesh at all. For the guys and gals who had families, it was difficult to attend ball games and school activities, and all that.

And then there was the drinking: take a high pressure job where bravado and cojones were highly prized plus a mostly young, often recently ex-military, workforce and one often felt obligated to "have a drink or three" after work which didn't help the domestic situation, especially when one got off at 10 pm or midnight.

Them was the days, eh?

So back to that young, charismatic, union-oriented President-to-be. The PATCO contract expired in the summer of 1980 and negotiations were ongoing all through the election that year. In November, we all exhaled a sigh of relief when that old rebel, Ronnie Rayguns, was elected. We had backed the right horse! Now we would be able to negotiate a contract with people who understood and appreciated us.

Except it didn't quite work out like that.

Ronnie appointed a guy named Drew Lewis to be Transportation Secretary. Drew and other people in the Administration were Republicans, after all, and they decided that they really didn't want to negotiate a new contract. As a matter of fact Drew and his buddies didn't like unions at all and they came up with a plan that became a blueprint for union-busting ever since.

They were still smarting from a previous PATCO strike in 1971 that was illegal but was resolved quickly by "negotiation", an archaic term you may not be familiar with. All the controllers (about 10,000 or so) except two union leaders were allowed to return to work, despite the illegality of striking against the government. That period was probably the apex of the Union movement in the U.S.A. One just didn't fire workers en masse. Two workers were considered the price to pay by the union for gains in the contract.

But Republicans were outraged (some things never change) and the elephant, as we know, has a very long memory. In 1981, they saw their chance for revenge. They just ignored the issue of contract negotiations and waited for PATCO to do something illegal. Suddenly, PATCO leaders who had been courted heavily just a few months earlier could no longer get their phone calls returned from the administration. By summer, the membership was growing restless and sick-outs started occurring. The FAA responded by over-filling supervisor positions (supervisors came from the ranks but, of course, had to give up their union membership) and leaving controller positions vacant. This meant even longer hours, and now with suddenly abundant supervisors looking over your shoulder all the time with a mandate to report all errors on duty. Minor problems suddenly began receiving major scrutiny. This caused a lot of hard feelings because the FAA had shrewdly picked many former Union stalwarts to be new supervisors with a sizable raise in pay and then promptly ordered them to crack down on Union members, which was everybody in those days. In anticipation of the strike they were trying to force, the FAA hired a whole raft of new trainees.

I don't know if they realized that would exacerbate the situation; they may have just been hoping that the new recruits would be afraid to strike.

You see, air traffic controllers are trained "on-the-job" and since there is always turnover, there is always on-the-job training. Now that might not sound too alarming and it is absolutely necessary - every job has training and a lot of it is "on the job", right? Except not every job involves keeping aluminum cans full of people from running into each other and spilling said people all over the ground - usually from heights sufficient to cause death.

Controllers were required to provide on-the-job training. As a matter of fact, in the months leading up to the strike I spent more time training new recruits than working by myself. There were more recruits and less controllers and supervisors did not conduct on-the-job training because they were busy, you know, supervising very closely every move the controllers made.

Big deal? So what? Well, on-the-job training in the FAA means that a controller signs onto a position (literally, you had to sign the position log) accepting full and total responsibility for what happens to planes full of people under the control of that position. Then a supervisor would order the controller to conduct on-the-job training at that position with a trainee with live traffic. So the trainee would plug in his headset next to the controller. The controller had the master switch, he could cut the trainee off at any time. The idea was to let the trainee do his thing. The controller was supposed to monitor but not interfere with the trainee unless disaster was imminent. The idea being that the trainee would dig himself a hole and then have to climb back out. Sometimes the hole got too deep, but they could always learn something while panicking and trying to claw their way out, right? At least that was the theory.

So imagine your whole career, your family's livelihood, and your sanity resting on the outcome of an exercise that was designed to fail. At the last instant you were supposed to step into a situation not-of-your-own making and sort everything out... and then do it again... and again... often for the whole eight-hour shift.

And for the same pay as when you were making your own decisions and weren't sticking your neck out for the sake of someone else learning on the job.

Now I don't mind cleaning up my own messes for free, but it seems to me that someone should get paid for cleaning up other people's messes. This was another issue in the contract dispute.

By mid-summer, it was plain that there would be a strike. PATCO had been working without a contract for a year and supervisors started taking the position that the previous contract was void, so it was open season on controllers.

The strike was called on August 3, 1981. PATCO hoped that the strike would not last longer than two weeks because they knew that they couldn't hold the membership out much longer than that. Everybody committed to wait two weeks for results. But Drew Lewis and his buddies were convinced that only a tiny fraction of controllers, the "trouble-makers", maybe 10% at most, were "forcing" the other controllers to strike. They advised Ronnie to give a 48-hour deadline to return to work. They assured him that at least 90% of the controllers would file back in.

Only they didn't. It actually worked the other way. About 10% came back within 48 hours; 90% stayed out. And were fired. And blackballed from government employment.

The government and the airlines relied on the "big sky" theory during the first few months when they had only about 20% of their former workforce actually working - you know, "it's a big sky, how could two planes possibly run together with all that room?". That and brutal cuts to airline schedules, which the airlines dutifully swallowed. After all, they couldn't wait to use the same tactics on their own union members.

It cost the government and the airlines billions of dollars to bust PATCO.

But it probably was a cheap price to pay if you consider the sad state of union membership today, thirty years later....

Eventually the new controllers that the FAA hired to replace the old controllers formed their own new union and arrived at a new contract on the FAA's terms. After all, there was no way they were going to strike after what happened in 1981.

Oh yeah, a sort-of happy ending: the FAA made some modest changes to staffing and scheduling of shifts for controllers earlier this spring, thirty years later. It seems some controllers were suffering from circadian desynchronization and falling asleep on the job and the media grabbed hold of the story. I guess money had nothing to do with it after all.

Finally, at long last, the cautionary tale: The next time you're up there in the stratosphere, flying in that big aluminum can, elbow-to-elbow, remember that down there on the ground there is a white-knuckled journeyman controller clasping a microphone switch and smelling that distinct odor of fear coming from his armpit region. Next to him is a young kid, full of piss and vinegar, trying desperately to show everybody how good he is and how many aircraft he can handle at once. He's in a hole. He may realize that or he may not. He may be able to claw his way out or he may not.

Let's just hope the union guy next to him, the white-knuckled guy who is seeing his life flash before his eyes every few seconds, is not distracted by the thought that every person in the FAA besides the controllers has been furloughed in an effort by Republicans to bust a few more unions....

Originally posted to hillbrook green on Wed Aug 03, 2011 at 01:16 PM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions and Community Spotlight.

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