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10 Years After PATCO Strike, A Legacy of Labor Bitterness


A decade after President Ronald Reagan fired 11,400 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and abolished their union, a new generation of controllers is on board, represented by a new union and voicing the same kind of complaints about under-staffing, overwork, antiquated equipment and sagging morale.

But members of the new National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) will not strike over these issues, insists union president R. Steve Bell, who credits the Federal Aviation Administration with taking some steps to improve control of the increasingly crowded skies and to listen to employee grievances. "We're committed to working in a nonconfrontational manner," he says, echoing similar sentiments of FAA officials.

The lesson of 1981, which saw two-thirds of the experienced controllers fired and a severely crippled air traffic system, apparently has been learned by both sides.

When PATCO controllers walked out on Aug. 3. 1981, Mr. Reagan's swift, tough response was seen as a turning point in U.S. labor relations. Employers viewed the decision as a green light from the White House to fire strikers and replace them, unions claim. Over the next 10 years, replacements of striking workers became more common, as the number of major strikes dropped.

PATCO's demise was also seen as a cautionary symbol of the decline of organized labor in the United States. Membership in labor unions dropped from 22.3 million in 1980 to 16.7 million last year, by government estimate. Meantime, union share of the labor force shrunk from 23 percent to 16.1 percent as the total work force expanded.

But the downward trend of union strength had begun years earlier. More women and minorities, often ignored by traditional union organizers, entered the labor force. The shift to a service economy, where organizing was less common, from manufacturing, long a union stronghold, eroded organized labor's membership base. Labor's strong ties to the Democratic Party, while Republicans sat in the White House, weakened its political clout.

Economic conditions of the 1980s played a role in more combative, brutal labor relations. Companies slashed jobs and costs to fight the runaway inflation of the previous decade and to manage the heavy debt incurred through leveraged buyouts. Accelerated mergers and breakups of existing companies hampered union organizing.

Court decisions and rulings by the National Labor Relations Board that began in the 1970s also undercut union power. Striker rights were curtailed, some workers were excluded from labor law protection, and union organizers were kept off company property.

Government deregulation of business fostered a new look by employers at the labor contract. So did the palpable anti-union, pro-business ethic espoused by Mr. Reagan, the only labor union president ever elected to the White House.

But the mass firing of striking air traffic controllers would be repeatedly cited as the presidential deed that challenged the legitimacy of unions. Labor and, tacitly, employers seemed to agree that the action emboldened companies faced with a strike to take that step, which had been little used since the Supreme Court permitted them to do so a half-century earlier.

Lost in this perspective was a key distinction in the PATCO walkout. That strike by federal employees was prohibited by law -- unlike most strikes in the private sector. And Mr. Reagan's dismissal of the illegal federal strikers was not without precedent.

PATCO's action was also not one to arouse public sympathy, despite some legitimate grievances about overwork and stress and nonresponsive management. These relatively highly paid government employees were demanding $10,000 pay raises, a 32-hour week and a retirement rights with less than 20 years of work -- not realistic goals for most working folk. The labor dispute disrupted vacation travel plans of many Americans that summer. Many PATCO members conceded that their union had overreacted -- after it was too late to save their jobs.

The consequences of the strike persist. Even today, with a continuing shortage of fully trained air traffic controllers, President Bush refuses to rehire those PATCO strikers. Legislation to lift the administration ban on their employment has not succeeded. Most strikers never regained the salary level they earned as controllers; many were unemployed and in near-poverty several years later, according to a congressional survey.

Yet it is doubtful that many could return to the job today, even if the government relented. The FAA says their skills are too rusty and that the system has changed. Older ex-controllers themselves question whether they could take the job pressure again.

The number of Full Performance Level controllers is still inadequate, NATCA says. New trainee graduates are thrown into the breach at major traffic centers instead of gaining experience at less hectic stations. Six-day weeks and overtime and foregone work breaks are still common. "It's a much more fragile system," says John Thornton, the union's legislative director.

Installation of long-promised ground radar and other improved technological aids have been delayed by FAA, which aviation writer Paul Stephen Dempsey says "is reputed to be the largest user of [obsolete] vacuum tubes in the world." Reports in 1986 and 1989 by the General Accounting Office, the investigating arm of Congress, found problems with equipment, staffing shortages and low morale, although noting ongoing improvements.

FAA maintains that its staff of more than 17,000 controllers is equal to 1981 levels, and that changes in air traffic management and technology have eased the controller's burden, allowing employees to manage more traffic effectively. Air traffic volume has increased about 25 percent in much of the country since 1980.

"The system is safer than it ever was," said Edwin S. Harris, FAA system operations director. "The whole environment has changed" since the strike. Aerial near-collisions and operational errors (adequate separation of aircraft in flight) have notably decreased in recent years, the agency noted.

But the FAA concedes that its has not met its goal that Full Performance Level controllers, who need no further training, make up 75 percent of the employee work force at each facility. Extra pay incentives to attract experienced controllers to the busiest stations, which are typically located in high cost-of-living areas, have not resolved the problem.

Airlines that schedule a full surge of flights at peak hours present a major challenge for controllers and tax their limits, even if their average workload is reasonable. "Controllers feel that they are being pushed to the limit, the system is being pushed to its limit," Mr. Thornton said of those scheduling surges.

Meantime, the ghost of PATCO is evoked in today's debate over legislation passed by the House two weeks ago to prohibit employers from permanently replacing workers who go on strike.

"Since the PATCO strike of 1981, the wholesale replacement of strikers and the threat of permanent replacement have become epidemic," said Rep. William Ford, D-Mich, a supporter of the bill. A GAO survey found that a quarter of employers facing strikes in 1989 hired or threatened to hire permanent replacements, up from 15 percent in 1985. Even if the Senate passes the bill, however, President Bush has stated he will veto it.

That presidential position is another enduring legacy of the controllers' strike, a lesson well learned by employers and workers from that signal event in labor history 10 years ago.

Michael Burns covers labor for The Sun.

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