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NATCA Remembers PATCO Strike of August 3, 1981; Urges Passage of FAA Bill to Ensure Future Safety, Stability of the System - (8/3/2010)

CONTACT:  Doug Church, 301-346-8245

WASHINGTON – The National Air Traffic Controllers Association today is pausing to remember Aug. 3, 1981. Twenty-nine years ago, the men and women of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, in their fight for a safer work environment, reliable equipment, adequate staffing levels and fair work and pay rules, took a stand and began a strike in fierce support of these goals and for the profession they loved.

Nearly 13,000 controllers – about 85 percent of the union’s membership and 79 percent of the workforce – honored the picket line. Two days later, they were fired. In all, 11,350 controllers lost their jobs. About 875 returned to work before the firings. According to the Transportation Department, staffing dropped 74 percent—from 16,375 to about 4,200.

NATCA was born from the ashes of this watershed moment in labor history and officially was certified on June 19, 1987 as the exclusive bargaining unit representative for FAA controllers. Said NATCA President Paul Rinaldi, “The issues that led to the 1981 labor showdown were not addressed, much less fixed. Thus, the thousands of new controllers that entered the workplace through the middle of the 1980s encountered the same conditions and substandard equipment that made the job so brutally difficult. Led by our founding NATCA members, the call for a new collective voice for the controller workforce rose from a whisper to a roar.”

This post-strike group of the most experienced controllers began to reach retirement eligibility in large numbers between 2005 and 2008. Then, the FAA under the last administration gave them an incentive to retire by imposing work rules and pay cuts. In fiscal year 2008 alone, at the height of this mass exodus, nearly 10 percent of the workforce was lost to attrition. But in fiscal year 2009, as the Obama Administration brought NATCA and the FAA back to the contract table under a fair collective bargaining process, total attrition dropped by 58 percent, as did the percentage of retirement-eligible controllers who left the job.

NATCA is now pushing for final passage, before the Sept. 30 deadline of the current reauthorization extension, of a compromise FAA reauthorization bill that includes language that would provide a permanent fair process for collective bargaining. This would ensure a stabilized workforce, leading to increased safety margins as the most experienced controllers elect to stay on the job longer. They would also continue to teach the more than 25 percent of the workforce now in training, passing along their experiences and wisdom.

Nearly three-fourths of the lawmakers voting on previously passed House and Senate versions of the FAA bill have already agreed that the way to permanently ensure a fair NATCA-FAA collective bargaining process and avoid future disputes and future disruptions to the stability of the workforce is to change the law – Title 49 of the U.S. Code. While NATCA continues to push for the bill for the safety and the future of the flying public, it remembers the proud history of controllers’ fights for safety.

“Today, we are thinking about the PATCO members, both in our workforce now and those that are not. They showed extreme solidarity and commitment, not just for themselves but also for those of us who would come later,” NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert said. “We remember what they endured and the ultimate sacrifice of their careers that they made for the National Airspace System.”

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