Union Reagan Fired Rises from the Dead

Ronald Reagan may have killed it — but he forgot to drive a stake through it’s heart, which is why the monster is once again prowling the halls of Congress and feeding off the American taxpayer.

I’m talking about, of course, the air traffic controllers union. During his first term in office, President Reagan warned the union, PATCO, not to cripple the nation’s air travel system by going out on strike. They did anyway. As a consequence, Reagan did what Reagan said he was going to do; he fired the striking controllers and replaced them. End of story, right?

Wrong. A couple decades later and the controllers have formed a new union: the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Thanks to the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act of 1996, NATCA was allowed to once again bargain pay issues on behalf of the controllers with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). "In return for this right," notes R. Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "the law required that in the event of an impasse (in negotiations), the FAA could implement its final offer after a 60-day congressional review."

Well, guess what? The existing contract with controllers expired last September. Since then, NATCA has been stalling the process in an effort to block the new FAA proposal, which streamlines archaic work rules and eliminates automatic pay hikes. In early April, an impasse was declared, despite the best efforts of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. That was, ta-da, about 60 days ago.

Which means, according to the rules already established, that the FAA can now implement its final offer. End of story, right?

Wrong. Reps. Steven LaTourette and Sue Kelly sent colleagues a letter on June 1st asking Congress to butt into this matter with a bill (H.R. 5449) which would force the parties back to the negotiating table.

"As you know, the FAA declared an impasse in negotiations with NATCA, and submitted the matter to Congress," the pair wrote. "Under current law, if we do not take action, the FAA’s final offer can be unilaterally imposed on the air traffic controllers. H.R. 5449 merely sends the parties back to the table to continue fair negotiations. The bill doesn’t pick sides in terms of whose position should prevail in these negotiations, it just returns the parties to the table to work out a deal."

Au contraire. This bill absolutely DOES pick sides. Under existing rules, the union has already lost the game. What LaTourette-Kelly does is to tell the losing team in the bottom of the ninth that it’s now going to get a fourth out.

Take a closer look at exactly what this hub-bub is all about. According to a "talking points" memo being circulated on Capitol Hill, "Controllers have already gotten a 75% pay increase since 1998, with the average controller earning $173,000 in pay and benefits. The FAA’s offer rejected by NATCA fully protects the salary and benefits of every current controller. The impasse was reached largely over salaries for new hires, not the existing workforce."

In other words, the controllers ain’t exactly living hand-to-mouth. However, it’s estimated that the FAA’s final proposal, as part of its efforts to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system, would save taxpayers some $1.9 billion. That’s a healthy chunk of change, even by Washington standards.

The 1996 law allowing the union to once again bargain for wages included the impasse clause to make sure the union wasn’t able to hold the nation’s air traffic control system hostage once again. Now some members of Congress want to simply disregard this safety valve and allow the union to continue dragging out negotiations. Congress ought not change the rules in the middle of the game and the FAA’s final offer should now be implemented without further delay.