Meister: Justice at last for air traffic controllers


Obama's FAA rescinded the onerous and dangerous work rules imposed by Reagan and Bush appointees and signed a new agreement that went into effect Oct. l.

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV's Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century)

The long struggle of the nation¹s air traffic controllers for decent treatment appears to be finally over ­­ the struggle that began in 1981, when President Reagan fired 11,000 controllers for striking and which resumed full force during George Bush¹s presidency.

The controllers aren¹t the only ones involved. Millions of airline passengers and employees and many fliers who pilot their own aircraft have faced serious threats to their safety because of what was done by the Bush
appointees who ran the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The policies they put in place have kept many air traffic control towers badly understaffed, subjecting the demoralized men and women who operate them to long, fatiguing work shifts with little time to rest. The potential
for accidents has been great ­ the possibility of improperly guided planes smashing into each other in the air or on runways, or going dangerously off course and crashing.

The controllers tried to improve the situation through their union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). But the FAA rejected union demands for improvements during negotiations for a new union contract
in 2006, then broke off negotiations and unilaterally imposed new work rules and pay cuts that made the situation even worse.

The rest breaks that had been guaranteed controllers after every two hours of their eye-straining, high-tension work of following aircraft paths across radar screens were eliminated, for instance. And the new rules allowed
their bosses to order controllers to work overtime, however fatigued or stressed they might be.

Not surprisingly, the controllers¹ morale neared rock-bottom. FAA surveys indicated that two-thirds of them were unhappy with how the agency was being managed. What¹s more, controllers filed more than 280,000 formal grievances charging the FAA with violating their union rights.

The number of controllers, about 15,000 when Bush took office, has steadily declined at the same time that air traffic has steadily increased. More than 2,600 controllers have resigned. The result, says NATCA, has been ³massive fatigue² among the remaining controllers who¹ve had to take on extra workloads, including 10-hour shifts and six-day workweeks. Some control towers have had to be shut down for hours at a time for lack of controllers.

Bush¹s FAA rejected repeated calls by the controllers¹ union to resume contract negotiations or at least submit to mediation, and Bush threatened to veto any legislation that would have required the agency to resume

President Obama¹s FAA quickly rescinded the onerous conditions imposed by Bush¹s appointees and reached agreement on new work rules in negotiations with NATCA. Other contract terms, including pay rates, were reached this summer through mutually agreed- to mediation and arbitration. The new three-year contract, approved overwhelmingly by controllers, went into effect Oct. 1.

The agreement allows much more flexibility in setting work schedules, a new system for resolving controllers¹ grievances, and other gains, including adjustments in a wage system that paid new hires nearly one-third less than
those already on the job. That had caused friction among controllers and gave the FAA a great incentive to force veteran controllers out in favor of cheaper newcomers.

A quick agreement was essential, the FAA and the controllers¹ union said in a joint statement, ³to stabilize the workforce, effectively train the large number of new hires and keep the current system safe and efficient.²

Close cooperation between the parties will especially be needed to develop what Obama¹s FAA Administrator, Randy Babbiitt, cites as a ³much-needed next- generation aviation system.²

Also very much needed is ³rebuilding trust between the FAA and its employees² that¹s been absent for more than a quarter-century.

Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV's Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century.
You can contact him through his website,, which includes
more than 250 of his recent columns.