Air traffic controllers try to unionize

Unionism is making a comeback with air traffic controllers. Five years after their union was crushed, many controllers say that a union is the only way they can gain the ear of management.

``I'll be honest with you: I'm not a big labor fan at all,'' says controller Steve Bell, an organizer for the controllers' union effort. ``If we could do this any other way, I'd be in favor of it.''

``We were on the cutting edge of the decline of the union movement,'' explains controller Fred Gilbert, another organizer. ``Now, I think we're at the cutting edge of the resurgence.''

Organizers of the new National Air Traffic Controllers Association are confident they will be successful. They have collected more than 4,400 signatures from controllers. That's more than enough to petition the Federal Labor Relations Authority to conduct an election early next year to determine if controllers want to unionize.

Dan Bunce, another organizer, used to despise unions. But he now sees a revival of interest in them. ``Without a union in place, there's no impetus [for management] to follow the rules,'' he says.

Controllers' criticisms center on the management style of their employer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Specific issues range from new government drug-testing proposals to the lack of additional staffing.

The staffing problem has dogged the system ever since Aug. 3, 1981, when 11,325 controllers walked off the job and President Reagan fired them. The move destroyed the old union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).

Since the strike, the work force of 5,050 nonstriking controllers, plus another 500 fired controllers later reinstated, has been slowly rebuilt. But with some 14,800 controllers today, staffing remains 1,500 below pre-strike levels, while air traffic has jumped about 10 percent in the same period.

That has meant heavy workloads for the controllers. Since 1981, for example, Chicago controller Donn Lynch has had to work substantial overtime, six days a week at a very busy sector of the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center. The problem: lack of controllers certified to handle the position, one of the busiest in the country.

``I'm really getting tired of it,'' says Mr. Lynch, a 19-year veteran, who retires in 17 months. An FAA reorganization of the Chicago facility and lack of consistent training has caused the shortage in that crucial area, he charges. Since 1981, only three people have been certified in his sector.

The new group is an autonomous affiliate of the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, as PATCO was. But it is a far cry from the militancy of PATCO in the early '80s. Its constitution contains the equivalent of a no-strike pledge (they are illegal anyway), and organizers spend far more time talking about improving the air traffic system than boosting their pay. With a base salary of $44,430 a year, a senior controller is one of the highest-paid federal employees.

By law, the FAA must remain neutral on the issue of controllers unionizing. ``That's their decision and we don't intend to interfere,'' says Stephen Hayes, assistant administrator for public affairs.

Some outside observers say they wouldn't be surprised if the controllers' efforts succeed.

``It's a well-paid, dead-end job,'' says Herbert R. Northrup, of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who has studied the controllers issue. ``Sooner or later, people realize that the only way they can get more is to unionize.''

But it's not clear that a turnaround for the labor movement is in the offing. ``Unions can't wait around for workers to get that frustrated,'' says Thomas Kochan, an industrial relations professor at the management school of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

``There's a lot of ferment in the labor movement and a lot of new ideas. [But] it's still searching around for an agenda,'' he adds.

``I don't think it [the effort to organize] represents any change in the long-term decline of unionization,'' says Richard Block, director of the labor and industrial relations school at Michigan State University.

Yet long-time consultant Sid Rubinstein is more confident of a turnaround. ``Unions grow when the public sees the unions operating in their [the public's] interest,'' explains Mr. Rubinstein, president of Participative Systems, Inc., of Princeton, N.J. ``I think we're on the threshhold of a new union movement.''

Instead of battling employers, these new unions will help their members by making their employers more successful, he says. ``I think the public will respond to that.''

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