EDITOR'S NOTE: A strong, proud union with a quarter century of rich history behind it, NATCA is taking time to celebrate its silver anniversary. Leading up to the June 19, 2012 anniversary of NATCA’s FLRA certification, we’ll be taking a look back at our first 25 years. Today's installment of this continuing series is a passage from our official history book, "Against the Wind," about NATCA's founding convention, which was held 25 years ago today.
At a ballroom inside the Chicago-O'Hare Ramada Inn on September 23, 1986, John Thornton (who was among a handful of controllers who were jailed for their actions during the PATCO strike in 1981) stood behind a podium and welcomed 72 controller delegates and assorted dignitaries to NATCA's founding convention. Almost immediately, he roused the audience by informing them that 4,200 controllers had signed petitions for a national union -- about 33 percent of the workforce. In less than nine months, the new campaign had met its goal and NATCA would soon file for an election with the FLRA.
Thornton then articulated what many in the audience believed about their organization. "It is clear that, in the FAA's book, controllers are to be seen and not heard," he said. "NATCA is a new union. It is
not a reincarnation of the past. Our goals and methods are different, and despite what our critics say, we are not condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past."
Determined to chart a different course from its more militant predecessor, the preamble of NATCA's proposed constitution explicitly vowed to abide "by lawful means" in carrying out its mission. The clause formalized a no-strike pledge that the union had adopted two months earlier. The constitution included two other key differences.
First, every controller would receive a ballot in national elections. And every facility was entitled to send a proportional number of delegates to conventions to vote on constitutional amendments and participate in other business. PATCO had elected voting representatives to speak for large blocs of members when electing officers and changing the constitution.
"You had a cadre of kingmakers out there who could really play politics and force the union perhaps to do things it might not have done," Thornton says now. "By having direct election of officers by the membership, you curb some of that."
Secondly, NATCA conventions would be held every two years. That way, the new union would reduce the amount of political fallout that influenced PATCO for several months before and after its annual gatherings.
Later that morning, a bespectacled Gene DeFries offered encouragement that appealed to the independent-minded controllers. "MEBA is going to fill your tank with gasoline and send you on your way, and we'll follow you for a while with a tow truck in case you break down," he said. "But we want you to run your organization."
NATCA took two formal steps that afternoon. Delegates unanimously approved an interim constitution and adopted initial membership dues of one percent of base pay.
Even as NATCA held its convention, FAA Administrator Donald Engen steadfastly maintained that few controllers were unhappy. "I have been to every air traffic facility ... and I haven't found strong support for a union," he told USA Today. "This is a very vocal minority that probably stems from PATCO."
Yet signatures continued to pour in. When NATCA filed its national petition with the FLRA on January 5, 1987, they totaled 5,800, far more than the 3,750 needed.
The FLRA approved the petition in March 1987 and scheduled a mail-in vote for all controllers during May and early June. This time, the FAA did not appeal the decision.