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Air controllers' history repeats itself

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By David Moberg
Sunday, Aug. 6, 2006

Twenty-five years ago on Aug. 3, most of the nation's 13,000 air traffic controllers walked out on strike, precipitating a conflict that still casts a shadow over American work life today.

The next day, President Ronald Reagan moved to decertify their union -- PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization -- and threatened to fire any controllers who didn't return to work within 48 hours.

By breaking that strike and the union, Reagan gave presidential legitimacy to a wave of anti-union actions by private employers, from breaking strikes to adamantly fighting their employees union organizing efforts.

This assault by management has done more to shrink organized labor in the United States than any other cause.

Looking at the nation's air controllers a quarter-century later, there are some cautionary lessons.

For labor, the lesson is that unions are strongest when they take pains to win broad popular support for their cause and when they stick together. If all the airline unions -- the pilots, the flight attendants, the machinists -- had united behind PATCO, and if PATCO had better demonstrated how its demands would protect public safety, the controllers might have held off Reagan's attack.

Similarly today, airline unions have not worked together to forge a common strategy that protects both workers and the public while addressing the industry's financial crisis. Management, often with the help of bankruptcy courts, has imposed deep cutbacks in pay, pensions and working conditions for workers one union at a time.

For their part, managers have learned the wrong lessons from PATCO. While hard-line resistance can crush their employees unions, problems don't disappear simply by suppressing employees' voice at work. What's more, workers who are respected and rewarded perform better. In many ways, a good manager can benefit from collective bargaining, using it to solve problems early and develop a motivated work force.

This was lost on Reagan and it is lost on President Bush. In the current administration, officials have become more hostile toward federal employee unions. Bush stripped many workers -- especially in the new Department of Homeland Security -- of their rights to organize.

Recently a Republican-appointed federal judge quashed another Bush effort to effectively eliminate the right of Defense Department workers to bargain.

Ironically, Bush's hostility toward organized labor is particularly evident at the Federal Aviation Administration, which employs the air traffic controllers.

Within six years after Reagan demolished PATCO, controllers had organized themselves into a new union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. These highly skilled, well-paid workers still wanted to have a say about their work. And for years, the new union and the aviation agency were able to resolve many problems constructively through bargaining.

In negotiations for a new contract this year, the Federal Aviation Administration demanded $2 billion in concessions from controllers. The union offered cuts worth $1.4 billion. But the FAA never compromised. It declared negotiations at an impasse and claimed the right to impose its own terms on workers -- cutting pay for current employees but even more drastically for newly hired controllers.

The union warned that the conditions of the new contract were so bad that within the next few years, thousands of controllers will likely choose to retire, causing a severe crisis in providing skilled workers for an agency that is already understaffed.

There won't be a strike to commemorate the anniversary of PATCO. But the autocratic, dismissive management that provoked the strike 25 years ago is just as much a failure now as it was then.

Some managers never learn: Workers want and deserve a voice on the job.

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times magazine ( ).

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