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1985 Midair Collision Over New Jersey Helped Galvanize Controllers Behind NATCA Movement

(Remembering the life and career of Barry Krasner, 1952-2018)

Within the first four years of his Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller career at New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), Barry Krasner found himself at the center of a sequence of events that helped provide the powerful spark of an organizing drive that resulted in the birth of NATCA. It all happened during the same administration of the President, Ronald Reagan, who had fired nearly the entire controller workforce in 1981.

Joseph A. McCartin, Professor of History and Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., wrote about this in his 2011 book, “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.” McCartin, who spoke to the NATCA Biennial Convention body in 2012 in Denver, interviewed Krasner as part of his research for the book.

Within two months of the August 1981 PATCO strike, a group of working controllers at Washington Center (ZDC) formed a group called the National Controllers’ Advisory Committee. By the spring of 1984, wrote McCartin, “scattered instances of resistance began to coalesce into organizing efforts at ZDC and across several New England facilities. The movement at Washington Center drew the support of a number of activists who had been PATCO members but who had left the union prior to the strike. The Leesburg facility soon became a hub of FAA organizing. The Washington Center controllers called their organization the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and they asked for help from the American Federation of Government Employees. AFGE President Ken Blaylock assigned a uniquely qualified organizer to aid them: John Thornton, who had previously led PATCO at National Airport.”

McCartin continued: “AFGE’s strategy was to try to organize separate drives in each FAA district and then combine the resulting organizations into a national air traffic controllers union. The first district targeted was New England, where controllers held their first organizing meeting in May 1984. They formed an AFGE district called the American Air Traffic Controllers Council (AATCC) and filed for a regionwide election.

“The Government tried to to deflect the AFGE-sponsored regional organizing drives by arguing before the Federal Labor Relations Authority that the FAA could only recognize unions that represented a national, rather than a local or regional bargaining unit. The FLRA sided with the agency, forcing organizers to round up signatures from 30 percent of the FAA’s entire controller workforce before they could win the right to an election. The stalling tactic worked for a time. The AFGE did not have the financial resources for a national union campaign. Other unions briefly flirted with the idea of sponsoring the organizing drive, only to back away.

“At that point, fate intervened. Once again, a midair collision shook air traffic controllers. On November 11, 1985, in fading light just after sunset, a Falcon 50 Executive Jet collided with a single-engine Piper Cherokee over northern New Jersey. All those aboard both planes were killed. The wreckage of the jet plunged to the ground in the crowded community of Cliffside Park, demolishing two buildings instantly and igniting a fire that destroyed four more. The accident took six lives in all, including one on the ground. Eerily, it took place only ten miles northwest of the spot where a DC-8 had crashed on the streets of Brooklyn on December 16, 1960. Controllers were not judged at fault in the accident. The tower controller at Teterboro Airport had warned both pilots of each other’s presence, and before turning to other duties he had ascertained that the jet, which was on a landing approach, had visual contact with the Cherokee. But the accident demonstrated to controllers how much they needed an organization to speak out on their behalf. Just as the 1960 accident had stirred organizing interest among the controllers of Hangar 11, the Teterboro midair collision galvanized New York area controllers behind the NATCA movement. (One of them, Barry Krasner, would go on to become president of the union.) A few weeks later, in December 1985, PATCO’s old patron stepped into the breach. C.E. “Gene” DeFries, who succeeded Jesse Calhoon as president of MEBA, announced that his union would take on NATCA as an affiliate and once again would fund a nationwide organizing drive to win a union for air traffic controllers. Thornton signed on as lead organizer.”

“Over the next eighteen months, NATCA’s campaign gathered steam, following in PATCO’s early footsteps. On September 23, 1986, eighteen years after PATCO held its constitutional convention in Chicago, two hundred air traffic controller delegates returned to that city to ratify NATCA’s constitution.”

Later, McCartin wrote, “NATCA’s organizing took off following the Chicago convention. By January 1987, almost half of the controller workforce had signed its petition demanding a union election. The FLRA responded by setting up a mail ballot a few months later. The results of that ballot were announced on June 11, 1987. Nearly 70 percent of the FAA’s controllers endorsed NATCA as their representative. Air traffic controllers were once again unionized.”

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