Air Traffic Control Union Representation: Pro Term Paper

Pages: 6 (1794 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 4  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Transportation

Air Traffic Controller Representation: Pro-Or Con?

An efficient aviation industry is essential to the nation's security and prosperity, and air traffic controllers are an essential part of the infrastructure that keeps this vital industry operating. Indeed, like firefighters and law enforcement authorities, there is a critical requirement for air traffic controllers to be on the job when they are needed, a need that is an accepted part of these professions. Consequently, when these critical professions engage in collective bargaining efforts that involve strikes, the public's welfare is jeopardized in fundamental ways. In the Land of the Free where employment is generally at will, though, the argument can also be made that all professions should be able to join a union to protect their mutual interests against constant encroachment by cash-strapped municipalities and federal government agencies. To determine whether air traffic controllers should enjoy union representation including the ability to strike, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

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Term Paper on Air Traffic Control Union Representation: Pro or Con Assignment

Following the end of World War II, the United States was rocked by a series of union-led strikes that crippled the nation's productivity and helped to advance the cause of collective bargaining across the country. In fact, during the first half of 1946 alone, nearly 3,000,000 American workers went on strike, and by the end of 1946, more than 4.5 million had participated in a strike at some point during the year (Manheim, 2000). Despite the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 which restricted the actions of unions their negotiations with workers and employees in response to these trends, employees continued to strike throughout the 1950s and 1960, and in 1970, a 15-state strike involving 200,000 postal workers disrupted the lives of millions of Americans in ways that undermined labor's hard-earned gains (Manheim, 2000). Indeed, Grimes (1999) reports that, "The annual number of major strikes (involving 1,000 or more workers) by organized labor peaked during the early 1970s" (p. 37). As a result, by the 1980s, the stage was set for a showdown between government and labor that would culminate with a strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981, prompting an equally harsh response by the executive branch. In this regard, Manheim reports that, "The year was 1981. The president was Ronald Reagan. The union was the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). The precipitating event was a strike. The outcome was the complete demoralization of the American labor movement" (p. 34).

The demoralization that followed the PATCO strike is understandable given the enormity of the federal government's response. The PATCO strike in late 1981 was not the only event that contributed to the decline of union activity thereafter, but it was a hallmark event that made it clear the U.S. government would not stand idly by while the nation's critical infrastructure was threatened by union activity. According to Grimes (2000), "The most obvious of these actions was the firing by the Reagan Administration of 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) who went on strike during the fall of 1981" (p. 37). Not only were the strikers fired for striking illegally, the government followed up with a wide range of court orders, fines, and arrests that had a devastating effect on the organizers. In this regard, Grimes emphasizes that, "This stance sent a clear signal concerning how work stoppages would be viewed by the Republican administrations of the 1980s" (2000, p. 37). This point is also made by Osorio (2012) who cites President Reagan's firing of more than 12,000 striking air traffic controllers in August 1981 is widely considered a defining moment both for Reagan's presidency and for American organized labor. For Reagan, it was the first of many lines in the sand he drew during his presidency. For organized labor, it marked an assault from an anti-union president determined to prevail against a Democratic constituency" (p. 112).

In reality, though, PATCO was comprised of a far different membership from the typical public employee union. According to Osorio, "While hardly politically conservative, its early membership consisted largely of military veterans. For them, a career in air traffic control presented a unique opportunity to put the skills they had learned in the service to remunerative civilian use, thereby starting on a path to the middle class" (p. 113). Despite their valuable skills, these professionals were restricted in their career paths to the only employer that could use them at the time, which was the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (Osorio, 2012). These highly restricted employment opportunities meant that air traffic controllers employed by the FAA were also restricted in their collective bargaining efforts (Osorio, 2012).

Following a series of controversies between the FAA and PATCO during the 1960s concerning the efficacy of the existing air traffic control operations and the need for updated equipment, PATCO organized a work slow-down in late 1968 known as "Operation Air Safety," an effort that simply exacerbated the already strained relations between the two increasingly adversarial organizations. In this regard, Osorio reports that, "Controllers could not strike, but they could slow down traffic by sticking to the letter of FAA rules. The slowdown worsened relations with the FAA and angered travelers. This conflict fed union militancy, which continuously ran up against government budget constraints" (p. 113).

It was in this environment that President Reagan entered his presidency, but all signs indicated the PATCO situation, like the American hostages being held in Iran, would now be favorably resolved. After all, Reagan had been the president of the Screen Actors Guild and had been supported by PATCO during his campaign because of his union background (Osorio, 2012). For a time, it appeared that the new president would in fact attempt to accommodate the demands of PATCO in response to further work slowdowns and authorized Transportation Secretary Andrew Lewis to make the union generous offers to help resolve the problem and avoid an air traffic shutdown at Chicago's O'Hare Airport (Osorio, 2012). The PATCO demands at the time included:

1. An immediate $10,000 pay raise for all controllers,

2. A 10% increase after one year,

3. A cost-of-living adjustment of 1.5% for every percentage point increase in the consumer price index,

4. A 30% bonus for time spent on-the-job training, and,

5. A 4-day workweek with three consecutive days off (Osorio, 2000, p. 114).

Despite the generosity of the government's offer in response to these demands which were regarded as the most generous to date, the union's leadership failed to present it in a favorable manner to the membership and it was rejected and followed by a strike in August, 1981 (Osorio, 2012). In the Supreme Court case that decided the outcome of the PATCO dismissals that followed the strike, the Court made it clear that although Title VII of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 established the collective bargaining rights of federal employees, the Act also cites the "special requirements and needs of the Government" and stipulates that the Act "be interpreted in a manner consistent with the requirements of an effective and efficient Government. The decision specifically noted that, "Most significantly, Congress reinforced provisions of existing law that made it clear that strikes by federal employees are prohibited" (Department of Transportation v. Fitzgerald et al., 1986, p. 3).

With the law of the land on his side, and notwithstanding his sympathetic background for unions, the president's hand was forced in the PATCO situation. Indeed, Osorio emphasizes that, "Reagan drew the line at an illegal strike. Even worse for PATCO, other union leaders were stunned by strike. They thought it reckless. Other unions publicly stated their support for the striking controllers but did little else" (2000, p. 113). The "Great Communicator" immediately took his case directly to the American public in a televised address and, stressing the threat the strike represented to national security, President Reagan allowed just 48 hours for PATCO strikers to return to their jobs or face dismissal, but just 10% or so of the PATCO strikers actually did so in time to save their jobs (Osorio, 2000). Moreover, the PATCO members who refused to return to work not only lost their jobs, but were banned from working for the federal government for the rest of their lives. According to Minchin, "After the 12,000 federal controllers refused to end their illegal walkout, Reagan dismissed them and imposed a lifetime ban on their re-employment by the federal government. This seemed to set a pattern that employers in the private sector followed" (p. 20).

Even worse for the PATCO strikers still was the fact that it turned out they were not so indispensable after all. According to Osorio, "The FAA had prepared well for the strike: supervisors, military controllers, and new hires handled reduced traffic. The airlines agreed to reducing traffic in exchange for a delay in airline deregulation" (p. 113). Therefore, the PATCO strike indirectly benefited the airlines by providing them with an opportunity… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Air Traffic Control Union Representation: Pro.  (2012, August 12).  Retrieved August 10, 2020, from

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"Air Traffic Control Union Representation: Pro."  August 12, 2012.  Accessed August 10, 2020.