Stepping Into History

It's been 30 years since the strike. For me, that's not nearly enough time to shake off the vivid memories and strong emotions it left me with. Sometimes, especially this time of year, I wonder what ever happened to all those guys and the few women I worked with so long ago. It's funny. I can't remember most of the people I knew during my last two FAA assignments but I can't forget the names of everyone I worked with before August 3rd of '81 ~ good friends and trusted coworkers all. It was a sobering time when much was revealed about the capabilities of people I thought I already knew pretty well.

Time Magazine, August 17, 1981
A lot has been written about the strike in those thirty years. Some writers have been respectful, informative and honest in their reporting. Some took what they learned in an interview or two, extrapolated more from that, then wrote an interesting, if not entirely factual story. Other writers made their partisan agenda far too obvious to be credible. You really had to be there.

Many who were involved before and after the strike know only a fraction of the tale. Those who walked away from their positions on August 3rd of '81 know only the first part of a drama that dragged on for many more years. Controllers hired immediately after August 3rd were privy to another part of the story but can only imagine how it started. Then there were the ones who went out, came to their senses and returned to work within the 48 hour grace period. They know much but still missed a beat or two. Unless a person was working in an FAA air traffic facility before, during and after the strike, I read or listen to what they have to say about it all with a measure of skepticism.

One frequently reported ambiguity has been that pre-strike morale among FAA's air traffic employees was scraping bottom. True, but I think it's important to clarify a couple of things. The term "employees" applied to all kinds of air traffic employees ~ not just the controllers standing in towers or sitting at their sectors. At Big Time, morale was also low among Supervisors who had to deal directly with an increasingly belligerent workforce while having to enforce policies that ranged from the petty to the preposterous. A first line Supervisor was usually the one standing at the flash point whenever a controller blew up over something. Many of the Supes I knew were actually more anxious to see a walkout than even the most radical PATCO members because it would remove several thorns from their side.

Morale was also low among Facility Management personnel. Although they'd deny it, the Staff Officers were growing tired of dealing with a seemingly endless stream of incoming Grievances, Unsafe Condition Reports and accusations of Unfair Labor Practices. Worse was the fact that local Management was rarely given the latitude to settle things at the facility level with their union counterparts. Everything went through the Regional Office, who ultimately dictated the approved response to their field facilities. The risks associated with allowing any one facility to establish what might become an untenable precedent was simply too great. So, emasculated by forces beyond his control, our Chief would shuffle out of his office now and then to posture for the workforce. His usual posture however, was to be slumped at his desk, reading through the growing piles of trouble and waiting for the next Regional Telcon to begin.

Of course, many of the controllers suffered from low morale. No surprise there either. Oppressive, uncompromising Management policies roiled them while PATCO's rhetoric and bellicosity roused them. Most were in a place where there was no refuge from the turbulence. They got angry and the angrier they became, the more conflicts there were with each other and with Management. More conflict meant more discontent, resentment and retaliation. Combined, they were the catalyst for what would soon occur. PATCO had its members right where they wanted them.

Everyone had their issues. . . with the exception of those working in Regional Offices or FAA Headquarters who knew they had the upper hand ~ no matter what the outcome.

It should also be recognized that not all employees of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization suffered from low morale. Discontent maybe but not low morale. The fact that I stayed on the job should not be construed as an endorsement of the way FAA managed its air traffic control enterprise. Far from it. I worked under the same out of touch autocracy that finally exasperated many of the strikers. Fortunately, I was among those who could either ignore or cope with FAA's imperfections by focusing on what, to us, was still the pure elation of working traffic. We just tuned out the cacophony of dissonance, immersed ourselves in the airplanes and waited for shift change.

Our morale was high. As the strike deadline neared, we shared an indescribably high level of energy brought on by the challenge we anticipated. The feeling was probably akin to a boxer about to step into the ring with a world champion. We were spoiling for a fight like everyone else, but for different reasons. Of course this made us targets for union members who recognized us as future scabs in the upcoming strike.

All of us, no matter what our plans for August 3, had at least one thing in common. Together, we were about to be goaded into uncharted territory. The union had a long history of mischief but had never gone this far before. As certain as the strike seemed on the morning of August 2, most of us were still unsure. Would PATCO really pull the trigger on Monday morning or was it all a bluff intended to make the FAA blink in the contract negotiations?

Everyone was anxious. Some who had reluctantly committed to the strike were feeling a sense of dread ~ each one hoping the union would step back from the point of no return ~ hoping they wouldn't have to go through with what they'd committed to and fearing the consequences. Local PATCO leadership tried to strengthen any unsteady confidence with their pre-strike mantra ~ "They can't fire all of us!"

There were many on the management side who hoped the strike would happen. Pete, our Area Manager, was one who left no doubt in anyone's mind about his hope for a strike. Like many of us, he saw an opportunity to rid the facility of its chronic complainers, union militance and malevolence. I was pretty sick of it myself because of the uncooperative atmosphere it had created between control positions. Unlike me though, Pete knew they'd be fired long before the general public ever heard it from Ronald Reagan. He also must have known a lot more than I did about FAA's strike contingency plans and was confident that they would work. So, at shift change, he frequently traded barbs and witticisms with the PATCO dissidents as they left the TRACON ~ hoping he wouldn't have to see or hear from them much longer. Just part of the game.

From the other side, PATCO's most combative members grew increasingly antagonistic toward anyone recognized as a probable non-participant. I was getting used to my status as adversary and came to anticipate being jammed with traffic, handoffs being accepted late, pointouts refused and other subtle techniques employed to raise my anxiety level. Just another part of the game. I was also being shunned by many old friends in the break room. It didn't bother me though. I had nothing to say to anyone foolish enough to walk away from one of the Federal Government's highest paying jobs ~ a job I loved and had waited a long time to get.

There were intense efforts by PATCO to establish or strengthen the bonds of union solidarity with anyone still undecided about whether or not to participate in the strike. Most of the faithful were convinced the aviation system would cease to function during a strike. They were also confident that the Government could never afford to purge themselves of such a large part of the controller workforce. They were ready to go. But there remained those few "fence sitters" who couldn't decide which bed to put their shoes under. Various degrees of persuasion and arm-twisting ensued ~ with chilling success.

Where you were working in 1981 largely determined how you experienced the strike's run-up and aftermath. My first-hand pre and post strike observations at Big Time would not necessarily correspond with what went on elsewhere. For example; at Big Time, the pre-strike focus for most controllers was indeed on the money aspects of the contract. The $2,500.00 raise in salary FAA offered in June might have sounded significant to controllers at Level One through Three facilities. Generally speaking, they worked in areas where the cost of living was much lower. However, those of us who worked at the Level Four and Five facilities lived mostly in areas where the cost of living was quite high. Much of that $2,500.00 would have vanished into increases in our tax rates. Yes, money was important to all of us. After all, debt is a timeless phenomenon and back then, as today, we had plenty of it.

Although some have attempted to explain it differently, the 32 hour work week proposed by PATCO was, to me, also a money issue. The way I saw it ~ anyone receiving the same salary for working 32 hours that they once got for working 40 hours was getting an hourly pay raise.

There were other, tantalizing tidbits contained in FAA's June offer but it wasn't enough to placate the PATCO faithful. So, early on the morning of August 3rd, I received a telephone call from one very excited Supervisor. The strike was on. Day shift staffing appeared adequate for traffic levels but I would be needed at 3:00 p.m. He warned me about probable picketing at the entrance to our parking lot. "Just ignore them" he said. I sat in front of the television all morning, watching various news teams cover the strike from several locations across the country. Even though I wasn't really surprised by what was happening, I was still incredulous.

The picket lines were long, loud and impossible to ignore. All those faces I knew so well looked very different under the intense heat of an August sun and the pressure of a struggle they would never win. Anger, fear and apprehension had quickly overtaken the look of audaciousness and arrogance they wore just a day ago. Some looked like they were facing a firing squad. Well, there actually would be a lot of firing but they didn't know it yet.

There are some persistent truths associated with what happened thirty years ago. For one thing, it changed the future for everyone who walked out. It also changed the future for those who stayed to deal with the consequences. Sadly though, it did not change the future for controllers hired after the strike. With the Federal Aviation Administration stuck riding on a not so merry-go-round of repeat mistakes, it seems unlikely that things will change soon. Beneath all the new programs and platitudes I saw since the strike, there remained the same culture of confrontation that started all the trouble.

What of all those people who loomed so large in my life in 1981? I miss everyone; whether they stayed or struck. Sometimes I wonder though. What might have been if the whole thing hadn't happened? By the mid-nineties, many of those fired thousands might have worked their way into upper management positions. Once there, would they have attempted to make positive changes to a system they had once fought so hard against ~ or would they simply have scrapped their ideals and assimilated? We'll never know. I can tell you this from experience though . . . a controller's ideals, brought into management, can be seen as excess baggage that should have been left behind.

So anyway, here's to a happy thirtieth anniversary. For those who went out, I don't agree with what they did but I do agree with some of their motives. Face it; this wasn't the first time people did the wrong thing for the right reasons. Most of us were such kids back then but, for better or worse, we all made our choices. Whether walking onto or off the job that day; we all stepped into history.

© NLA Factor, 2011