Air Traffic Strike The Pressures of PATCO: Strikes and Stress in the 1980s By Rebecca Pels ————————————————– ———————- Note on electronic format: you can access any citation by clicking on the note number. In order to leave citations and return to the main text of the document, press the Back key on your viewer. ————————————————– ———————- On August 3, 1981 almost 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike after months of negotiations with the federal government. During the contract talks, Robert Poli, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO), explained the union’s three major demands as a $10,000 across the board raise, a 32-hour workweek (down from 40), and a better retirement package. While the press and hearings in Congress focused almost exclusively on the demand for a pay raise, certain commentators recognized that the air controllers’ walkout was not solely, or even primarily, an economic issue. Newsweek noted that controllers concede that their chief complaint is not money but hours, working conditions, and a lack of recognition for the pressures they face.
Time wrote that the 32-hour week was a reduction that the controllers seem to want more than the pay increases. . . . most PATCO members see this issue as the key to lowering their on-the- job anxieties and enhancing safety.
One striker later explained that the $10,000 demand was always negotiable; anyone who believed it would come to pass was dreaming. Of primary importance to most was a reduced work week and an achievable retirement. 1 Such views had little effect on negotiations; 48 hours after the walkout, President Reagan fired the 11,350 ATCs (almost 70% of the workforce) who had not returned to work. In case the message was still unclear, he declared a lifetime ban on the rehiring of the strikers by the FAA. The dramatic circumstances surrounding the strike attracted much commentary, at the time and subsequently. This attention, however, for the most part, failed to uncover or illuminate the fundamental issue under contention: control of the workplace.
A study of the relationship over several years between air traffic controllers and their employer, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), and the language, reasoning, and actions used by controllers both before and after the strike, as well as the FAA’s responses, 2 reveals the centrality of this fight which has traditionally characterized strong labor action in the past. Despite the assertions of many that the issue of control has little relevance in the modern high-tech workplace and has been superseded by other concerns, it was the galvanizing force behind many controller protests over the years and led to the explosion in 1981 with the strike. Indeed, instead of a redefinition of workplace relations in the twentieth century, the same struggle over control continues, only in less evident, and perhaps more dangerous, ways. Historians have long debated whether workplace control is still a key issue in late twentieth century management-worker relations. Many scholars and much of society have surmised that the development of new technology and modes of production would alter the terms of, or even eliminate, this conflict. The rapidly changing character of world markets and new economic and technological advances would preclude the usefulness of the traditional adversarial relationship fostered by unions and managers at the point of production and replace it with a participative model which reduced the need for work rules, grievance systems, and wage standards. With the restructuring of the workplace as a caring community, traditional dissatisfaction would dissolve in an atmosphere of unity and good feeling and do away with conflict and division. New technology would allow workers to perform more creative, useful, and interesting tasks; reduce hazards at the workplace; and even lead to less hours and more leisure time. 3 Harry Braverman, in his classic book Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), disputed this optimistic view of change in the twentieth century workplace. He instead presented work (in capitalism) as inherently geared to the creation of profit rather than the satisfaction of man’s needs, thus ensuring a fundamental conflict of interest between workers and capitalists.
As management systematically attempted to reach the potential of its labor in the face of antagonistic relations, it looked to scientific management theory, as well as technology, in order to better control labor. The widespread adoption of Taylorism had only initiated the process of deskilling jobs and removing autonomy, responsibility, and judgement from the shop floor, which then continued through other, more sophisticated, and less obvious, methods. 4 Historians David Noble, Harley Shaiken, Barbara Garson, and Ronald Howard have all supported variations of Braverman’s thesis, primarily by studying the effects and implications of technology and automation on blue and white collar workers. Like Braverman they argue that the primary impetus behind job definitions and the structure of developing technology has generally been to limit worker autonomy further. Cost reduction and profit, frequently management’s explanation for implementing changes in job structures, have thus been only rationalizations masking initiatives basically designed to strengthen managerial control.
5 A study of the reasons for the ongoing strife between the FAA and air traffic controllers, highlighted by the strike, demonstrates how important the issue of workplace control continues to be in late twentieth century worker-management relations. Moreover, it indicates how factors such as technological advances and the discourse and substance of labor-management bargaining since World War II have served to mask this struggle, often to the disadvantage of the workers involved. The PATCO controversy is particularly useful to illustrating such an assessment for several reasons. First, while air traffic controllers are employees of the FAA, ostensibly the overriding goal of both groups is to assure the maximum safety of air travel. This presumably removes the traditional conflict of interests between management’s search for profits and workers’ job satisfaction, and would seemingly make for harmonious relations. Since this was not the case, obviously other factors worked to divide the two groups. Second, the FAA possessed a monopoly over the training and hiring of air traffic controllers (except for a small percentage who worked for the military).
With specialized skills and usually limited education, most ATCs had little choice but to work for the government. They therefore had a large stake in work conditions and benefits. The same factors gave the FAA a strong hand in dealing with its workforce. Third, the majority of controllers found their work intrinsically interesting. Most described their occupation as challenging and exciting.
As one explained, the expression is used about printers that they get ink in their blood. We have airplanes in our blood. A striker noted in 1984 that I have been unable to find a job or position that offers the same excitement and personal satisfaction that controlling aircraft did. 6 Such job satisfaction indicates that the complaints of air controllers ran deeper than unhappiness with the occupation per se. Finally, advancing technology played a key role in both the cause and the resolution of the strike.
Controllers, for the most part, paid little attention to the implications of automation on their occupation, although PATCO occasionally faulted the FAA’s emphasis on equipment instead of people. Most controllers believed in the centrality and necessity of human skill and judgement to the system. Indeed, they welcomed almost any equipment or programs that might assist them in their work. At the same time, though, an overwhelming number of individual ATC complaints singled out stress as a primary motive for striking. Greater air traffic volume and increased demands on ATC capabilities made possible by new technology, coupled with faulty equipment and autocratic management that limited workplace autonomy, were the obvious causes of such stress. Yet neither PATCO nor the controllers made this connection explicit or strongly challenged management privilege to decide the nature and purpose of computers in air towers.
Meanwhile, FAA officials clearly saw automation as a means of eliminating dependence on skilled controllers. As an editorial in Aviation Week and Space Technology commented, few federal bureaucrats have the chance to fire 70% of their departments and replace the victims with lower-salaried recruits–or with computers and black boxes. In 1982 J. Lynn Helms (head of the FAA) announced a twenty year program costing between $15 and $20 billion to replace the system’s aging computers and further move towards automating air control.7 ————————————————– ———————- While the strike suddenly made relations between PATCO and the FAA headline news, there was nothing novel about their opposing stances and uncompromising positions. PATCO and the FAA had had a turbulent relationship since the formation of the union in 1968.
In 1968, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975, and 1978 ATCs conducted nationwide slowdowns and sickouts in efforts to gain better pay, training, staffing, retirement benefits, less hours, and in response to FAA actions such as the involuntary transfer of certain union activists. By 1980 the union had achieved significant benefits for controllers, including one of the best retirement systems in the country and the best collective bargaining position of any union in the public sector. At the same time, an us vs. them mentality prevailed between PATCO and the FAA. This divide was reinforced by PATCO’s establishment of a group of responsible militants (referred to as a strike force at times) in 1978 to help organize and lead membership, and the FAA’s creation of a management strike contingency force in 1980 as both groups anticipated renegotiating the controllers’ contract when it expired in February 1981.
Two studies conducted during the 1970s confirmed the existence of deep-rooted problems. A task force commissioned by the Secretary of Transportation in April 1968 to explore ATC complaints released its official findings in January 1970. The Corson Committee Report warned that employee-management relations with the FAA were in extensive disarray. Concerned about an extremely low controller morale and its possible effects on public safety, the committee urged a sharp reduction in work hours, the upgrading of equipment and facilities, the reduction of required overtime, the expansion of intervals between shift rotations, and the revision of pay criteria. Most significant, it recommended making these changes by working with appropriate employee organizations. The report also criticized PATCO for ill-considered and intemperate attacks on FAA management.
But it placed the majority of blame on the failure of FAA management to understand and accept the role of employee organizations and its tolerance of ineffective internal communications.8 The FAA commissioned a more extensive study in 1972. Headed by Dr. Robert Rose, the five year, $2.8 million project led to similar conclusions. The 750-page Rose Report found that the job of an air traffic controller was not uniquely or debilitatingly stressful. However, the researchers added that many of the stresses that were associated with the job, indicated by high levels of drinking and depression, were due to autocratic management and a system which included little reward and a fear of burnout. The Rose Report labeled morale as low among nearly 40% of controllers.
The FAA paid little attention to such warnings and implemented few of the reports’ recommendations. FAA officials seemed to view the reports alone as somehow conducive to ameliorating workplace relations and continued to act in ways that both the Corson and Rose Reports had condemned. For instance, in 1979 FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond arbitrarily terminated an Immunity Provision which had been included in the 1978 three-year FAA/PATCO contract. This program was designed by controllers to encourage ATCs, pilots, and administrators to exchange information and thereby learn from each others’ mistakes without fear of retribution or ridicule. It set up an outside, disinterested committee under the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) to process accounts of mistakes and act as a buffer between the FAA and system users. Controllers and pilots could report errors and in most situations remain immune from disciplinary action.
Regularly published reports compiled from this data then circulated throughout the aviation industry, making system users aware of common pitfalls.9 Bond’s refusal to honor the contract provision not only further eroded FAA- ATC relations, it led to a drop in reported incidents, thereby undermining aviation safety. At the same time, the FAA was demanding that controllers handle increasing traffic loads with staffing that was already below the agency’s own standards. When the union pointed out the problem, the FAA revised its facility staffing standards to legitimize the situation.10 A fundamental struggle over workplace control best explains such seemingly irrational actions (the FAA’s raison d’etre being to enforce and maintain the safety of air travel). As several historians have documented, in labor-management relations conflicts over control are extremely volatile and management reactions are not necessarily rational in strict economic terms. Indeed, management understands labor’s threat in this arena as a challenge to the system underlying its own power and status. 11 Barbara Garson has specifically argued that the contemporary combination of nineteenth-century scientific management and twentieth-century technology is basically an effort to centralize control and move decisionmaking up the bureaucratic hierarchy.
The specific form that automation is taking seems to be based less on a rational desire for profit than on an irrational prejudice against people.12 Interestingly, during the years before the strike, FAA acquisition of better, more advanced equipment was surprisingly slow. Only when the possibility of a strike loomed did the FAA make a concerted effort to implement better technology into the air towers. While bureaucratic inefficiency and financial limitations explain part of this delay, it appears that an important reason was that new technology would have done little to increase managerial leverage over controllers. Indeed, such upgrades might have lessened FAA control. Only when the strike made it absolutely necessary did the FAA invest substantially in new technology after spending considerable effort on ensuring such equipment would mean less reliance on controllers’ work.
A closer look at the FAA’s plans concerning the use of computers in air traffic control supports such an analysis. An April 1982 issue of Technology Review described an important aspect of the FAA’s new program: Between 1989 and 1995, an automated en-route air traffic control (AERA) facility will be implemented to carry out normal routing and conflict-avoidance without controllers’ intervention. . . .
Such a system implies that the entire task of routing air traffic will be done with minimal human intervention, changing the controller’s role from that of an active participant to that of a monitor. Only if the computer system shuts down or judgments beyond the programmed instructions were required would direct human intervention be expected.13 This effort to minimize the role of controllers, though, actually conflicted with the development of optimal technical alternatives which would improve the safety of air travel, as a 1982 Rand Corporation report pointed out. Rand blasted the direction of FAA research and development, writing that: The AERA scenario presents serious problems for each of the three major goals of ATC–safety, efficiency, and increased productivity. By depending on an autonomous, complex, fail-safe system to compensate for keeping the human controller out of the route decision-making loop, the AERA scenario jeopardizes the goal of safety. Ironically, the better AERA works, the more complacent its human managers may become, the less often they may question its actions, and the more likely their system is to fail without their knowledge.
We have argued that not only is AERA’s complex, costly, fail-safe system questionable from a technical perspective, it is also unnecessary in other, more moderate ATC system designs.14 Rand proposed an alternative called Shared Control in which the role of the controller would be expanded so that he is routinely involved in the minute-to-minute operation of the system using an increasing suite of automated tools. Obviously, Shared Control had little appeal for an FAA more interested in limiting worker autonomy than promoting public safety.15 The FAA’s reluctance to implement managerial practices that might be less abrasive and improve FAA-ATC personal relations during these years is more difficult to explain. In part, this reluctance might have stemmed from a basic fear that personnel management techniques might irrevocably undermine the hierarchical structure on which management control and power rested. Yet many other businesses have successfully used such approaches to consolidate control over labor. It appears that in this case the FAA’s employment monopoly is a main reason for rejecting such a system.
ATCs have no alternative to working for the FAA, thus a seemingly more responsive management is unnecessary to maintain its labor force. Another oft-cited component which may have contributed to the continuation of autocratic management is a military orientation within the FAA’s air traffic control system. One management specialist recommended that 40-50% of supervisors be replaced because of the high proportion of people with a paramilitary management value system. He explained that such an approach indicated a deeply engrained autocratic belief system and obstructed compromise or worker input. (Many supervisors had in fact been in the military. Interestingly, though, the specialist, David Bowers, found it ironic that the paramilitary style that seemed to be prevalent in the FAA is not one that I have encountered with any frequency in the Navy nor in the work that I have done with the Army.) 16 Other reasons for the FAA’s resistance to reform may be a lack of any kind of training program to teach management skills and responsibilities, the practice of simply promoting controllers to positions as supervisors (they are accustomed to vectoring aircraft.
. . . [then] they attempt to manage by vectoring people. But people don’t vector. Nevertheless, they have a management philosophy that emphasizes top-down direction, top-down control, autocratic behavior, and says that this is indeed what gets results.
17), and an inefficient, top-heavy bureaucratic structure which inhibits communication. Finally, the FAA’s dual mandate has contributed to its choice of management styles. Created to enforce and monitor air safety, the FAA is also charged with promoting air travel. The resulting interaction of the airline industry, the administration of aviation traffic, and air traffic controllers has often led to outcomes that undermined air safety and exacerbated ATC stress and aggravation. For instance, the FAA has consistently reacted swiftly to stifle PATCO demands, such as regulating flight schedules to even out the volume of air traffic throughout the day, that would slow traffic.
This twin purpose also led the FAA to blame any problems in air traffic on the individual controllers rather than the system or employment practices. By 1981 management-labor relations had deteriorated to an all-time low. ATCs complained of staff shortages, dangerously out- of-date equipment, limited opportunities for transfer, and harsh authoritarian leadership. Using new equipment, supervisors selectively and discreetly, monitored all communications and had the authority to discipline controllers for anything from nonstandard phraseology to rule breaking. Union activists were generally monitored more closely, enabling FAA officials to selectively log mistakes and build cases for future leverage.18 The result was increasingly militant views in the numerous surveys PATCO leadership authorized in preparation for the 1981 contract negotiations.
In March 1981, 78% of PATCO membership indicated their willingness to back a strike.19 When negotiations opened with the FAA in February 1981, President Robert Poli brought a list of 97 demands to the table. Of this list, seven grievances dealt with economic issues, two with working hours, five with equipment, and sixty with various working conditions, including items such as facility lighting, dress codes, and staffing levels. As the talks stalled, Poli stressed the demands for an increase in pay, better retirement benefits, and a shorter workweek. In June the FAA made a final offer of a $2,500 pay raise (in addition to the $1,400 ATCs were slated to receive as part of an overall federal pay hike), a 15% increase in pay for night work, and a guaranteed thirty-minute lunch period. When Poli presented the package to the members of PATCO, 95% voted to reject the terms.
The FAA refused to make any further concessions in the talks that followed, and on August 3, 85% of PATCO’s members went on strike. When President Reagan threatened to fire all ATCs who did not return to work within 48 hours, only 1,650 did. The remaining 11,350 lost their jobs. The FAA immediately implemented its newly revised plan designed to offset the effects of a strike. Through the use of flow control (regulating and distributing evenly the number and schedule of daily flights), a minimal force of 10,000 remaining controllers, supervisors, and military personnel (a total of 7,000 fewer than before the strike) were able to maintain over 80% of scheduled air traffic. Although working 6-day, 48-hour plus weeks, workforce morale was high as the remaining controllers and management worked closely together to keep the system aloft. The honeymoon period soon ended, though, as temporary expedients attained a normal status. The FAA removed restrictions on air traffic, yet hired few replacements.
Worse, the firing of the strikers eliminated a large percentage of the most experienced journeymen, placing a heavy burden on those who remained. The 48-hour week continued in many areas for years, as did mandatory overtime. Not surprisingly, by 1983 controllers were discussing plans to create a new union. In 1987, ATCs (almost all nonstrikers or new employees) moved to form the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Their grievances mirrored those of the strikers and exposed again the FAA’s ability to rely on technology and monopoly to avoid conceding control over the workplace. Congressional hearings, surveys, and interviews of controllers conducted before and after 1981 show that the workers’ concerns which led to the strike (and many earlier and later protests) stemmed from a vital interest in bettering their lives at work and away from work by reducing the stress involved in their occupation. The air controllers’ overwhelming rejection of the FAA’s offer of a substantial pay raise in 1981 was indicative of the true interests of the rank and file.
Instead of following the ritual in such cases of dropping its more innovative demands [a shorter workweek and earlier retirement] in return for a higher money wage, the membership greeted the compromises that its leadership was prepared to make with swift disapproval.20 An overriding interest in gaining more power within the workplace in order to minimize stress helps explain this decision. Indeed, as Philip Foner, David Roediger, and David Montgomery, and Benjamin Hunnicutt have shown, the call for shorter hours has historically been one of control and related to broader notions of work and leisure. Controllers frequently linked these issues as well, albeit implicitly. Most observers, though, attributed the rejection of the contract to controllers’ greed and belief in their ability to hold the government hostage to their demands. One reason for this viewpoint was the Reagan administration’s and the FAA’s tremendous success in influencing media coverage. Such media reports reinforced most Americans’ tendencies to view salary and work-related stress as the controllers’ primary grievances. The widespread acceptance of such complaints as commonly experienced and unavoidable drawbacks to work led the majority to believe that they did not justify the uproar and inconvenience that the controllers were causing.
A critical component contributing to and ensuring the acceptance of this view was PATCO’s own demands and rhetoric. Poli’s emphasis on economic benefits served to subsume the basic struggle over power in the workplace; mask the links among stress, autocratic management, and workplace control; and undermine the moral position of the strikers in the eyes of the country. By basing a strike on an action critique of specific FAA techniques rather than an ideological and theoretical critique of managerial control and its relationship to stress, PATCO earned few supporters and the basic issue of manager-labor power remained unaddressed.21 A look at the most publicized aspects of the strike– economics, stress, and management– shows how these issues obscured and distorted the controllers’ main concern of workplace control and helps explain why problems persist in the ATC workforce. It also demonstrates how management and labor’s focus on economic issues since World War II has bankrupted labor’s discourse and limited its ability to address concerns outside of a narrow range of concerns. ————————————————– ———————- Numerous commentators criticized PATCO’s demand for a $10,000 raise, as did many strikers afterward who said that salary was really not a concern at the time and not the reason for the walkout. The FAA and the Reagan administration seized immediately upon the $10,000 figure and successfully used this issue to prevent support for the strikers.
The media focused almost exclusively on the pay raise and the violation of the no-strike pledge, to the exclusion of the controllers’ other concerns. The result of such coverage is clear from one striker’s wry observation: I’m still amazed when I talk to union people in my present line of work (phone service sales) of how much they really misunderstood about our job action. They only remember the $10,000 raise and the 4- day workweek. To both unsympathetic members of Congress and the public, PATCO members were overpaid, secure public sector employees trying to use their monopoly position to secure more than Congressmen were making.22 These perceptions were in part responsible for the overwhelming public approval of Reagan’s handling of the strike; 65% in a public opinion poll; mail, according to one representative, ran 1000 to 1 in favor of the administration. Most strikers denied that money was a critical component in their decision to strike.
Yet Poli insisted that his demands, headed by a pay raise, reflected the desires of his constituency. Arthur Shostak, who conducted five surveys of PATCO members in 1979 and 1980 backs up Poli’s assertion that salary was important to the strikers. It is tempting to concede then that workers did see the strike as an economic solution to their inability to change working conditions, and merely backed down when faced with public hostility. However, controllers’ statements to the press and in congressional hearings contradict this view and indicate how central the issue of managerial power was to the decision to strike. For instance: Controllers suddenly find their work schedule is changed on very short notice instead of with the more common and regular 2-week notice .
. . at some locations . . .
the sixth workday does not show up on the work schedules, but you are expected to show up. If you don’t, you get a telephone call. We have had some controllers tell us they have scheduled minor surgery just so they can get 2 days off in succession. The fear of retaliation or retribution [by the FAA for testifying] is very real in the minds of these controllers. It doesn’t take much to have some administrative action taken against you when traffic is being handled at such high volumes. We are not dealing with robots here, we are dealing with human beings.
That is what we are screaming out for. 23 Such comments make it clear that salary was not the critical issue for ATCs. Why the attention to financial benefits then? The basis of the focus and expression of PATCO’s d …