Air Traffic Strike

.. emands rested upon prevailing norms of workers’ interests and power. Since World War II, labor leaders have placed a disproportionate amount of emphasis on economic gains, and the collective bargaining process has gravitated toward these areas. At the same time, management has carefully guarded its prerogatives from the bargaining process.24 In this context, it seems likely that in envisioning a future strike, controllers felt that wages could and should be one aspect of it. Yet wages were not the decisive factor for most, and their other demands, derived from a far more vital, ideological interest than economic gains, evoked their passionate and surprisingly unified response.

Individual controllers pointed to stress far more often than salary when justifying the strike. Indeed, in the same way that Reagan emphasized PATCO’s economic demands to gain support for his actions, PATCO, both leaders and members, pointed to the unique stress that air traffic controllers experienced daily in order to legitimate its demands. Their reasoning rested on two premises: that the nature of air traffic controlling as an occupation made it inherently and uniquely stressful, and that FAA management through indifference to acute staff shortages, dangerously out-of- date equipment, poor training methods, and harsh authoritarian leadership exacerbated that stress. The results of this stress were physical and psychological problems and the undermining of public safety. Since its founding in 1968 PATCO promoted this stress- relief thesis at every opportunity. Indeed, PATCO’s entire case for deserving benefits given no other federal employees hinged on the general acceptance of this two-pronged reasoning. Yet ATCs consistently emphasized the first premise, underscoring the stress inherent in directing air traffic, and neglected the second which related management to the stress. For example, in 1981 strikers constantly spoke of the adverse tolls of their profession.

Bob Consart, after 29 years as an ATC, cited his occupation as a primary reason for his divorce and a year of psychotherapy. He explained that this is a young man’s game–like professional ball-playing. An August 1981 article in the New York Times reported that controllers say the heavy responsibilities of their jobs create stress, and they usually retire in their 40’s, often with medical problems they say are related to the stress. Another controller told the Los Angeles Times that the strain of his job was so great that it was a factor in the breakup of his marriage and had raised both his pulse rate and his blood pressure.25 Poli elaborated upon this theme in testimony before a congressional subcommittee in 1981: Controllers constantly face countless situations which require them to make decisions affecting the lives of thousands of people . .

. Day in and day out, they must guard against even the smallest error, for a mistake could kill hundreds. There is no room for guesswork, nor is there time to sit back and leisurely consider a traffic situation. Decisions must be swift, positive and correct. .

. . Being able to accept such an intense level of responsibility is at the heart of the controller’s job. However, its residual effects are felt in every aspect of his life. Over time, while dreading the terrible consequences of one incorrect control decision, the controller loses the fight to the knowledge that he is human and in the long run, fallible.

The strain created by this internal war generates insidious effects on the controller’s entire life. They can manifest themselves in physical or mental disorders, social withdrawal, marital trouble, or concealed alcoholism.26 Arthur Shostak and David Skocik claim that the union argued that stress was caused by the autocratic FAA system, rather than the job itself. But as the passage and statements above indicate, this distinction was often unclear or omitted, opening the way to critics who urged rejection of the stress-relief argument for several reasons: 1) the most comprehensive study of controllers, the Rose Report, found medical proof of the job’s hazards conspicuously elusive; 2) widespread abuse of medically-related retirements discredited PATCO’s claim that 89% of controllers never survived until normal retirement; 3) the love that controllers professed for their jobs and the long waiting list of applicants to the FAA’s academy for controllers undermined claims of its killer characteristics; 4) stress as the ATCs explained it was hardly unique to the controller’s job, as satirist Mike Royko put it, almost as many people head for bars at 5 p.m. each workday as get on commuter trains or expressways . .

. A lot of people would like to give the striking controllers a pat on the back, but their own hands are shaking too much.27 Citing such points, the FAA maintained that workplace reactions to stress were simply an individual matter and thus did not require organizational changes or reforms. 28 Adherence to a strict medical definition of stress forwarded this thesis and undercut PATCO complaints that referred to quality of life issues outside the workplace such as family. In 1981 controllers were primarily protesting the conditions under which they worked and their inability to change those conditions rather than the work itself. It was the environment over which they had no control–faulty equipment, long hours, mandatory and unscheduled overtime, fear of arbitrary reprisal, fear of losing the ability to handle the job adequately, and being left without a means of supporting self and family–which led to intolerable stress, burnout, and health problems.

But, when thrown together, labelled stress, and unlinked theoretically to autocratic management, observers failed to see these concerns as unique or worthy of work stoppage. Americans’ widespread suffering from and acceptance of stress as inherent in work rather than caused by factors such as certain managerial techniques also bolstered the FAA’s position. Indeed, studies have shown that workers tend to blame themselves rather than management or technological design when feeling burned out and incompetent. Stress is seen as their own inability to function according to the norms established by the company. They feel they are individually failing to live up.

29 Such an approach effectively delegitimized ATC grievances in this area. Most analysts of the strike have concluded that the controllers were really protesting against the FAA’s autocratic management. Commentators criticized PATCO leadership for submerging this complaint in favor of economic gains. In 1983, for instance, an article in the Washington Monthly noted that although complaints about low pay and long hours are conspicuously rare when controllers are asked to name their biggest frustration with the system, complaints about bad managers are almost universal.30 The many congressional hearings also settled upon FAA management as the main problem in the air traffic control system. The Rose Report, two other FAA-commissioned studies (the Jones Reports), and two General Accounting Office surveys pointed to the rigidity and inflexibility of the FAA as the reason for the tremendously low morale in the workforce. However, even as these groups correctly identified the problem as a labor-management conflict, their recommendations failed to improve the situation.

By focusing on management practices, researchers and congressmen tended to view low morale and the strike as a response to an organization that they [the controllers] experienced as uncaring, unconcerned for its people, uncommunicative, and unreceptive. David Bowers, one compiler of the 1982 Jones Report, attributed the real problem to an inability to bargain or contractually mandate human concern, considerate behaviors, and mutual affection. 31 These types of evaluations lended themselves to personnel management sorts of solutions such as providing human resource counselors, scheduling rap sessions, and establishing management training programs. Although the Jones Report also suggested that the FAA should publish a manual of employee rights and responsibilities that clarifies the basic rules within which everyone works together and maintain flow control, 32 such concrete improvements were rarely stressed and never implemented. Thus, the emphasis during the congressional hearings placed on the need to improve the nature of FAA management often served to prevent further probing into alternative causes or solutions which might involve acknowledging the need for a restructuring of workplace relations, which in turn might challenge aspects of capitalism and free enterprise central to a general American philosophy and way of life.

It was much easier, and in the interest of many, to ignore the politically charged issue of workplace control and concentrate discussion instead on problems with solutions less difficult to reconcile with the prevalent framework of employer- employee relations. The lackluster results of this focus were predictable and indicative again of the underlying struggle for workplace control between workers and management. For example, the FAA’s creation of Human Resource Committees (HRC) and Facility Advisory Boards (FAB) in local control centers in order to improve communication between workers and management and address employee grievances had little, if any, positive effects. A report based on interviews at one center related that: The FAA’s Human Relations Program at the Indianapolis Center is the joke of the facility. Employees laugh openly at FAA’s efforts to make the program workable on paper while they continue with their prestrike policies of employees’ relations. .

. . the end results show minimal if any improvement. The more senior people do not openly complain about the lack of improvement because for them it is business as usual. The newer people don’t openly complain because they know FAA doesn’t like the boatrocker and because the older personnel are keeping quiet. 33 More revealing was the FAA’s reaction when one Chicago controller organized a national conference of FAB representatives in order to network and thereby improve the communications within respective facilities and with management, and improve the air traffic control system as a whole. The FAA instructed the controller to cancel the convention (he did) or risk punitive action.

This was despite the fact that the conference was to be held on the controllers’ own time and at their own expense. Again, the discussion in the congressional hearings about this event revolved around the complicated bureaucratic structure of the FAA and its lack of support for the controllers’ initiative, missing the whole point of why the FAA felt the need to cancel the conference. Despite the supposed mutual aim of public safety, the FAA was not about to give up its power to dictate working conditions. Indeed, its denial of the existence of any problems and its refusal to negotiate on issues of working conditions underscore this point. The FAA used personnel management devices as cooptive and repressive measures rather than a means of sharing power.

The controllers’ turn to another union in 1987 reflects the failure of this supposedly cooperative approach to mitigate the management-labor conflict in the ATC system. ————————————————– ———————- The FAA, Congress, researchers, the media, and workers overshadowed and masked this traditional struggle between management and labor by concentrating on these various issues, effectively depoliticizing and quantifying the employer-employee conflict. Each problem appeared to have a scientific or readily available solution which would resolve the disagreement and lead to harmonious workplace relations. Common discourse contributed to labor’s ineffectiveness in forcing fundamental root problems in the workplace to be directly addressed. Language and discourse, which in the early twentieth century served to unify workers and forward their causes, has become less powerful and incendiary since World War II. In the case of air traffic controllers, scientific studies and surveys transformed worker consciousness into morale.

Worker discontent and dissatisfaction became stress, a medical problem generally accepted as a factor of everyday life. Statements made by individual controllers, however, contest these interpretations of the strike’s causes and indicate the potential, though unrealized, of a theoretical, political, and ideological critique of managerial control that is rarely expressed in the late twentieth century. What is most striking about the grievances made by air traffic controllers before, during, and after the walkout, is the dramatic language they used to express their concerns. In 1981 congressional hearings, Poli responded to an attack on the legitimacy of PATCO’s demands by saying that controllers are not starving, but they are starving for a working condition that does not leave them destroyed individuals when they leave the job after 14, 15, 16 years. Dennis Lebeau, striking after twelve years as an ATC, simply said, it’s our lives at stake and they’re worth the sacrifice.

The wife of a 28-year old traffic controller in Chicago explained that the strike was not simply a matter of principle but a matter of survival. In 1984 a striker wrote that given the same set of circumstances at any given time, I would do it again. There is no doubt history will prove PATCO was right in their actions. Maybe legally wrong, but surely morally right. 34 A placard carried during the strike read: We’re on strike against (F)ear, (A)ntagonism, and (A)dversary.

Consistent use of such passionate, suggestive terms indicates a deeply rooted frustration with FAA management. These men (almost all the controllers were men) were not suffering from economic deprivation or a lack of respect. They loved their jobs. One controller’s wife explained that . . .

they were like gods . . . they were like giants; they were like nobody else; . .

. macho, crazy, eager, proud, dedicated.35 These very conditions may have contributed to many controllers’ decision to strike, as did an almost universal confidence that they were vital to the functioning of the system. These factors may also have embedded the firm conviction that they were entitled to the power to enact changes in the workplace which they believed would better their own lives and enhance the safety of the system. The irony, of course, is that theoretically the FAA had the same goals (operating under the assumption with which most agreed that a happier workforce would enhance safety, while dispirited and overworked ATCs would harm the system’s effectiveness). Yet in the eyes of controllers, the FAA’s dictatorial character undercut both goals to an intolerable degree. Thus the feeling of morality, survival, and the need to act.36 This power struggle emerged clearly in the many congressional hearings dealing with the status of the ATC system and the government sponsored surveys of the ATC force.

Controllers in both instances told again and again of the arbitrary and authoritarian nature of management that little by little eroded their ability to perform their job, their control over life away from work, and their dignity, and the stress that resulted. The FAA’s constant attempt to limit worker independence is evident, as is the controllers’ interest in gaining more autonomy. In 1979 a subcommittee of the Committee of Public Works and Transportation held hearings about the adequacy of equipment and staffing in the ATC system. Interestingly and significantly, when the committee’s staff attempted to collect information from twenty ATC centers around the country to compare statistics on FAA equipment and procedures in preparation for the hearings, the FAA issued orders advising centers not to provide any information. In his opening statement Representative Tom Corson (IL) noted controllers’ complaints that there were no set standards used by supervisors in deciding numbers and qualifications of people necessary to work at a given time.

37 Corson emphasized that shortages of qualified staff, inadequately maintained and out of date equipment, insufficient training programs, safety hazards all contributed to a low morale. Less than a year later, during an investigation of computer failures in the ATC system, Representative Bob Whitakker (KS) pointed out that the official FAA response to most near misses was that they chose to blame the controller for the near tragedy and only listed the computer malfunction as a contributing cause. ATC Charles Mullick from Oakland testified that controllers are now hesitant to report dangerous or possibly dangerous situations for fear of reprisal by the FAA. Mullick added that the FAA has taken away our second career [the physical ability to pursue another occupation once unable to continue air traffic controlling due to its debilitating effects], our safety reporting program, and a number of freedoms guaranteed under the US Constitution. 38 Such remarks only showed in part the conflicts and confrontations that ATCs experienced daily. Controllers saw management’s abuse of power as affecting not only job performance, but hurting the quality of life away from work.

In 1980 testimony to Congress, Poli explained that for workers in larger towers with inadequate staffing who maybe for 4 or 5 months are working 6 days a week and 10 hours a day, there isn’t enough money to pay them for what they have to go through with the disruptions of their family and how it affects them as individuals in the continuing operation of their job. When asked what benefits controllers would hypothetically strike for, Poli responded that fewer hours, better retirement, and improved equipment would be main issues along with the ability to spend more time with their family . . . if they could work less time so they can be home more, I think that would be a big issue.

39 While Poli may have used this appeal to gain congressional sympathy, the words of controllers during and after the strike demonstrate that the quantity and quality of time away from work was a vital concern to many. One wife described how her husband had gone from a completely passive person, a guy who was crazy about his job to someone who would jump on you at the drop of a hat. A controller described how somedays I go home and walk in the door and my wife takes one look at my face–and my clothes, which are sweated through from the neck down–and she doesn’t say a word. She sends my son to his room and she makes me a drink and we don’t talk for 2 hours. Another added that my wife says she’d rather have me whole, healthy, and with her than going back to work under the conditions we had. One wife complained that by the fourth day of a work week, he has no patience and it’s almost as though his head is going to explode.

Our whole family runs according to Kennedy tower’s traffic. Many controllers traced such problems to mandatory overtime and rotating shift work that undermined parenting and neighboring roles. 40 Several responses to a 1984 survey of former controllers saw a better family life as one of the few positive results of the strike. One wrote that I regained a family that I had lost by working w-ends, holiday, and night shifts. I have learned to communicate with my family now, as I had no time for family life as an ATC. My wife and children have related to me many times how [much] easier I am to get along with .

. . Another simply stated, Family situation vastly improved, and a third that this was the greatest thing I have ever done for my family. We get along better, no drinking problem. Health problems have disappeared.

Better relationship with friends and new friends are easier to make. 41 Obviously, ATCs understood and resented the costs of management’s power. In 1983, Congress began to ask controllers to testify in hearings on the ATC system. One controller who testified wrote a telling letter to the chairman of the subcommittee immediately after the hearings had ended: The way Mr. Helms [the chairman of the FAA] slanted his testimony against the Washington Center controllers, it was as if to make them feel ashamed for taking their annual leave.

. . . we as controllers should not be boxed into a canyon of workload that makes us feel less of a human being if we don’t take on unsafe volumes of traffic and risk our health by gleefully working all the overtime. It is not normal and for Mr.

Helms to denigrate those of us for taking our leave (that we’ve earned) proves my point that they now ‘expect’ us to be supermen.42 Dr. David Bowers who helped conduct research for the Jones report related what one controller who had not been a member of PATCO and not gone on strike had told him: He said that in the days leading up to it [the strike], the management divided them into two kinds of people: good guys and bad guys. The good guys were management, team supervisors, and the controllers who were known would not go on strike. There was the honeymoon period in the immediate wake of the strike, 2 or 3 weeks or whatever . .

. of teamwork and good relationships. [Then] he said, suddenly, they woke up and the world was divided into good guys and bad guys again. This time, the managers were the good guys and the bad guys were team supervisors and controllers. 43 Hearings in 1989 brought more of the same sorts of protests and allegations.

A 1988 GAO survey included the words of one supervisor who explained that employee input is not really being sought out and that budget constraints make permanent changes and station moves practically impossible . . . [moreover] drug testing [which had recently been instituted] being performed on a work force with no history of drug-related errors and accidents [is] professionally insulting. The report also set forth the view of one controller as widely representative of the workforce as a whole: Morale is horrible, traffic is intolerable, management insensitive.

We are overworked, understaffed, and abused. We even have a supervisor who says you can’t stand up to relieve the tension and ache after spending 2-1/2 plus hours at a sector by yourself without any help. . . .

Worst of all–nothing will change after this survey. Too bad. Numerous controllers repeated this last sentiment. 44 Finally, Steve Bell, president of the newly formed union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) testified: It is no wonder that NATCA won certification and that we now have half of the workforce as members. The FAA was the best recruiting tool around.

Controllers were feeling helpless in the face of this disinterested monolith. NATCA gives them the only opportunity to effect meaningful and lasting change. . . .

It is as if FAA managers are absentee landlords who had no idea what their tenants are complaining about . . . And as with an absentee landlord, we will probably get little relief. 45 It was the imposition of management control over all aspects of a worker’s life–the effect of overtime on job performance and outside lives, the arbitrary/short notice of overtime demand, inability to obtain sick leave or take breaks, a lack of clear job definitions and responsibilities, the facility and practice of perceived unfair managerial reprisal–against which ATCs continued to fight almost ten years after 11,400 workers struck–and were fired–for the same reason.

As Harley Shaiken writes, these seemingly picayune squabbles, are in reality, disputes over more fundamental questions of power and job security. The real issue is who will organize work on the shop floor,46 and, by extension, life away from the shop floor. ————————————————– ———————- The FAA’s responses to the controllers’ grievances and repeated congressional reprimands and recommendations demonstrate perhaps even more dramatically the degree to which control over labor may influence managerial actions; for asserting FAA control was not a question of profit, but in fact posed a blatant threat to public safety. That members of the agency were willing to take such a risk by consistently ignoring controllers’ obviously valid criticism, such as faulty equipment, demonstrates an awareness of the challenge that the controllers presented and a refusal to give up any part of their authority. The FAA’s handling of the strike is the most obvious proof of its outlook. Rather than reopen talks, the FAA instead maintained air travel using an overworked, undertrained, skeletal workforce.

It, too, denied the legitimacy of workers’ grievances, refused to negotiate working conditions, and dismissed the strikers as chronic complainers and crybabies. Deliberate underreporting to Congress and the public of near-misses and other safety violations since the strike also showed the extent to which the FAA was willing to violate its mandate to ensure safety in air travel in order to maintain control over its labor force.47 In addition, the FAA immediately intensified efforts to automate the system more fully in order to decrease its reliance on trained skilled controllers and monitor workers’ actions. One example that instigated tremendous controller protest was the implementation of computers designed to record operational errors. The FAA claimed that the purpose of this program was to detect unreported errors and thereby promote safety. The squeal-a-deal or snitch machine as it became known, reported any error, no matter how insignificant, immediately to a supervisor. Despite the supposed immunity from reprisal, supervisors and managers then exercised enormous discretion in recording and reprimanding such errors. Controllers saw the implementation of drug testing as yet another way in which the FAA displayed its distrust of, disrespect for, and control over workers, as did its use of a Survey Feedback Action Program.

While the Agency said that the purpose of the survey was to give every employee a chance to identify problems and also have a voice in correcting them, after collecting the supposedly anonymous responses, the FAA returned the original comment sheets in the controllers’ own handwriting to the facility managers, thereby destroying all confidentiality. NAFTA president Steve Bell noted that: The ramifications are obvious. Controllers who were critical of management and facility policies were identified and could now be subject to prejudicial treatment. Reprisals can be very subtle such as watch schedules, Performance Evaluations, promotions and transfers, etc. The breach in confidentiality also means that controllers will think twice about ever filling out one of these forms again.48 Perhaps the best evidence of the depth of the struggle between FAA management and the air traffic controllers for control of the workplace is the remarkable similarities of the workers’ complaints, despite years of congressional investigations, recommendations and supposed improvements. As a GAO representative explained to Congress in 1986, in reviewing the written comments, one of the things that surprised us was the fact that you really could not discern a difference between the comments of a relatively new controller, one hired since the strike, and one who has been around the system for quite a few years.

The tone was virtually the same. The issues were the same. We were quite surprised about that.49 The most recent survey of air traffic controllers, completed by 80% of the workforce in 1988, led the GAO to conclude that the same problem areas that the GAO recognized in 1984, and many of the same problems that contributed to the controllers’ strike in 1981 still plague the ATC system. Congressman Guy Molinari (NY) added that the most salient point of the GAO report . .

. shows . . . the perceptions of management and controllers are worlds apart. It is hard to understand how facility managers and controllers in the same building perceive work conditions so differently.

50 David Montgomery has pointed out that the battle for control of the workplace neither began nor ended in the opening years of this century.51 Although technology, management theory, modes of production, labor’s position, and cultural views of work and workers have all changed the appearance and terms of this struggle for power, the fundamental conflict remains the same. These same changes in society, though, have also served to overshadow this dispute, leaving it, at least in the case of the air traffic controllers, unaddressed and unresolved. Nevertheless, controllers clearly saw, if only indirectly, this problem and understood it as vitally linked to their broader expectations and aspirations of life and work. Thus inspired, in 1981 13,000 of them risked job security, income, and arrest to reassert this right, and less than ten years later a new group of workers created a union to better continue the struggle for control. Bibliography 1 Aviation Essays.