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NATCA30 Spotlight

March 10, 2017 // NATCA 30 – Wrapping Up Our Look Back at the 1980s

(NATCA would like to thank the NATCA Historical Committee, Howie Barte, Dee Robison, and Mike Palumbo for lending their efforts and expertise to NATCA30 coverage.)

This week, we mark the end of our NATCA30 coverage for the 1980s and prepare to delve into the 1990s era history of our great Union. The story of NATCA began long before the Union’s 1987 election and Federal Labor Relations Authority certification. It began with John F. Thornton, a gifted and influential leader whose passion for representing the interests of the nation’s air traffic controllers began with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), and continued as a national organizer of NATCA.

PATCO called for a strike on Aug. 3, 1981, seeking improved working conditions, increase in pay and reduced work hours. Over 13,000 controllers across the country went on strike, including Thornton.

President Ronald Reagan had promised PATCO that he would rebuild the air traffic control system alongside them during his run for office. However, Reagan fired 11,345 air traffic controllers for not returning to work and banned them from employment with the federal government for life. On Oct. 22, 1981, the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) decertified PATCO, leaving its members without representation.

Thornton took to the picket lines with his union brothers and sisters, and he was among the handful of controllers who were arrested; he served 10 days in the Fairfax County, Va., jail.

Two years later, air traffic controllers looking to organize a new union sought Thornton’s help. Traveling throughout the country to drum up support for the new union, Thornton immersed himself in a nationwide effort to organize and shape a labor union that air traffic controllers could proudly support.

NATCA’s organization efforts would culminate on June 11, 1987, when 70 percent of air traffic controllers voted in favor of NATCA as their sole bargaining union. It was an extraordinary turnout, and telling of the times – that conditions in the nation’s air traffic facilities weren’t getting any better,

After NATCA’s certification, the Union would appoint him senior director of legislative affairs, a position he served in for seven years. He was a strong advocate for the improvement and strengthening of air safety, and he conveyed clearly that NATCA was a different kind of union, with a new way of handling matters.

“We want a non-adversarial relationship with the FAA,” said Thornton in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in June 1987. “Not a lot of rhetoric. Not a lot of confrontation. If we went out and started condemning them, got that old antagonism going again, we really couldn’t expect them to say, ‘OK, we’ll deal with you in an upright manner.’”

Thornton worked closely with fellow organizer Howie Barte, who was the first to sketch the AATCC logo. It was modeled after a radarscope with a control tower imposed.

On Dec. 2, 1985, Barte and DeFries made an official announcement that MEBA would organize air traffic controllers. They knew that rehashing PATCO would leave them with little hope of being successful. Replacing “Organization” with “Association” in PATCO was suggested, but “PATCA” was deemed by those involved to be too similar to the now defunct PATCO. Thornton and Barte decided on National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) instead. On Dec. 16, 1985, they adopted the NATCA name and created the now iconic logo with a MEBA artist changing the name AATCC to NATCA.

Once in motion, NATCA’s momentum was unstoppable. On Dec. 30, 1985, NATCA’s first organizing letter was drafted and then sent to 40-to-50 activists across the country. A week later, on Jan. 11, NATCA held its first national organizing meeting in Alexandria, Va., where Thornton directed the proceedings. There, the NATCA logo was used officially for the first time. Shortly after, the first NATCA newsletter was mailed out to the membership.

On Sept. 23-24, 1986, NATCA held its founding convention in Chicago, Ill. 72 delegates attended, including provisional representatives from each of NATCA’s nine regions.

On the morning of the first day of the convention, John Thornton announced that NATCA had collected more than 4,200 signatures — about 33 percent of the workforce — calling for an election on whether to form a union. In under a year, the new campaign had met its goal and NATCA would file for an election with the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). However, the group wanted to gather more signatures before filing them to help ensure a “big win.”

“NATCA is a new union,” said Thornton. “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.”

On June 11,1987, NATCA’s National Executive Board went to count ballots on the vote for NATCA to be the sole bargaining unit for air traffic controllers. An overwhelming 70 percent of the controller workforce voted in favor of NATCA and the FLRA acted quickly. One week later, on June 19, 1987 the FLRA recognized NATCA as the sole bargaining representative for air traffic controllers. It was a culmination of the efforts started by a small group of controllers in Washington, D.C., and seen through by Thornton, Barte, and all of the activists who remained resolute in their vision that NATCA was the way forward.

On Jan. 26, 1988, almost 300 delegates packed the Phoenix Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta for NATCA’s second convention. They were seated in nine regional clusters. Their goals included establishing constitution, finance, and safety committees comprising one member from each region; defining an “active” member as a controller who had been certified in the preceding two years or a developmental in a training program; and limiting the right to vote or hold office to “active” members.

Steve Bell won and assumed his role as the first elected NATCA president and Ray Spickler the first executive vice president. At the regional level, several interim regional representatives retained their seats, but the 1988 election brought five new faces, forming the first elected National Executive Board.

Bell and Spickler were now working alongside nine regional representatives: Will Faville Jr., Alaskan Region; Dan Brandt, Central Region; Barry Krasner, Eastern Region; Joseph Bellino, Great Lakes Region; Gary Molen, Northwest Mountain Region; Jim Breen, New England Region; Lee Riley, Southern Region; Ed Mullin, Southwest Region; and Richard Bamberger, Western Pacific Region.

The entire board met for the first time after the election on Sept. 12, 1988 on the eighth floor of MEBA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Later that month, they would present the union’s first contract proposal to the FAA.

As Bell and Spickler assumed their new roles, the Union was lobbying Congress on an issue that had fueled the initial organizing effort: the Federal Employees Liability Reform and Tort Compensation Act of 1988 (FELRTCA). A bill by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., would immediately substitute the government for federal employees as the defendant in civil lawsuits.

Prior to the bill’s passage, the families of accident victims had periodically sued air traffic controllers instead of the federal government. This cost controllers and their loved ones thousands of dollars in legal fees which made it difficult for them to buy and sell property or obtain loans until the government stepped in to defend the case.

At that time, in order for a government official to be protected by absolute immunity for common law torts, not only did the official have to be acting within the outer perimeter of his/her official duties, but the conduct at issue also had to be discretionary in nature.

In enacting FELRTCA, Congress abrogated this common law rule and extended absolute immunity for common law torts to all federal employees regardless of whether the conduct at issue was discretionary. FELRTCA confers such immunity by making the Federal Tort Claims Act the exclusive remedy for all common law torts committed by federal employees while acting within the scope of their office or employment.

Although the Union had formed many of its organizational structures, including standing committees to deal with the constitution, finance, and safety, it did not yet have a Political Action Committee (PAC). Thornton gained support from MEBA which contributed its PAC dollars to allow NATCA to establish initial relationships with members of Congress. NATCA also joined a coalition of federal sector unions formed by the Public Employees Department of the AFL-CIO to campaign for the bill.

Their lobbying efforts were a huge success and President Reagan signed the bill into law on Nov. 18, 1988.

A year later, NATCA began its political activism. On Sept. 28, 1989, NATCA established its PAC, with Thornton as its director, collecting $21,163 in contributions during its first election cycle. The contributions could allow NATCA to support candidates that supported the same issues it believed in, including the safety of the National Airspace System.

On Nov. 16, 1988, NATCA began the first bargaining talk between a controllers’ union and the Agency in more than seven years. The team understood their responsibility of helping to ensure the well-being of more than 13,000 families. They were prepared to negotiate a new contract.

NATCA chose its 10-member contract team carefully, making sure it represented a balance of terminals and centers located across the regions. The team attended a two-day seminar on negotiating skills conducted by the American Arbitration Association. They also spent two intensive weeks at MEBA’s expansive colonial-style training facility in Easton, Md., drafting proposals and listening to advice from ousted PATCO President John Leyden so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Their research culminated in a comprehensive proposal containing 82 articles.

The first NATCA contract differed from PATCO’s last contract in several ways. Under the NATCA contract, the FAA negotiated the right to change controllers’ schedules within one week. Under the PATCO contract, it had been three weeks. Under the NATCA contract, developmentals had to check out on at least two control positions before receiving FAM trip privileges while PATCO trainees received the benefit immediately. But NATCA made one significant improvement over PATCO: the FAA agreed to grant regional representatives 50 percent of official time off to conduct their duties. PATCO board members who took leave to serve the union had done so without pay from the FAA.

The two sides reached a tentative agreement in mid-January 1989 after contract team members had spent two exhausting months negotiating in the Washington, D.C. area, far from their families. However, the work was not done.

Union members overwhelmingly approved of the contract. The three-year agreement took effect May 1, 1989, after the membership ratified it by a vote of 3,920 to 748 — an approval margin of 84 percent. Though subsequent contracts would further strengthen and expand controllers’ rights, NATCA founders and activists who’d spent more than five years creating the union and securing its first collective bargaining agreement basked in an enormous sense of accomplishment.

NATCA would also get another big win in 1989, when an arbitrator ruled in favor of NATCA on the question whether a facility representative may leave the facility to perform official representational duties while on official time.

The expedited arbitration took into account three cases where a facility rep (LGB, ZDC, and ARR) had been denied permission to leave the facility to perform official duties. In deciding in favor of the Union, the Arbitrator said: “The Agency may withhold permission altogether if the employee cannot be released from duty. But once the determination is made that he can be released, the implication is that the Agency does not need his presence at the facility.”

That same year, NATCA established its proud and valuable tradition of training and education starting with a few classes.

NATCA launched an official training program in October 1989 under a contract with the now-closed George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Spring, Md., just north of downtown Washington, D.C. The weeklong course covered federal sector labor relations, management rights, unfair labor practices, disciplinary and adverse actions, grievance and arbitration preparation, and a briefing on the Union’s first contract (which had been adopted the previous May). The training also included mock negotiating sessions, an invaluable component for new union reps, many of whom had little relevant experience other than haggling over the price of a car or house.

Classes were also held at the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association’s (MEBA) training facilities in Easton, Md., until the mid-1990s, when NATCA assumed responsibility. Staff members from headquarters initially taught the course, which was expanded to include sections on local finances, organizing, safety and technology, National Transportation Safety Board issues, and other topics. A year later, the regions began teaching the class with help from the national office.

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