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


Anonymous said...

I was there before, during, and after, although I was only a two-year developmental in 1981 so I wasn't anywhere near as unhappy as the older guys tried to tell me I should have been. We had 61 developmentals at my center before the strike, and 3 afterward. Our manager was absolutely upfront about the contingency plans - he said there were 9 variations, and none of them included rehiring anyone who left. PATCO, on the other hand, just kept flogging their aura of indispensibility with the "They can't fire everybody" mantra. As someone said at the time, "...You're in trouble when you start believing your own PR." I hear Poli ended up selling cars somewhere - I would have guessed "selling swampland to elderly widows."

The FAA really had a shot at doing better after the strike, but they blew it. As soon as the management had time to start screwing with people again, they went right back to their old ways and earned NATCA as a reward.


No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks for writing! I shared your feelings; both as a two-year developmental and beyond. Had I learned that Satan himself was running the FAA (according to PATCO-he was), it wouldn't have changed my outlook. As far as I was concerned, I had the best job in the world. My unhappiest moments never had anything to do with LMR issues. It was usually more about team assignments, the inability to get annual leave when I wanted it or just having to hear so many other people's non-stop bitching.

My discontent only settled in for the long haul well after the strike when I began seeing all the old mistakes being made by management. The coming of NATCA was no surprise. Me and my comrades back then would say that, along with the strikers, several heads should have been taken down at 800 Independence Avenue. But no. They were the good guys...

As for Poli? A pathetic figure in an epic tragedy. Were I him, I'd have surrounded myself with armed bodyguards forever. I'm sure there are still many people out there, who's lives he ruined, who would like to take revenge. After all, not everyone believed it was Reagan's fault.

Take care,
NLA Factor

Anonymous said...

I was a first line supervisor at a Level III VFR Tower during this period and I will say that there is balance to this article. At my facility recovery was tedious because we worked 6 day weeks & 10 hour days for several months. Mistakes were made on both sides, PATCO with its silley antics prior to and during the strike, and management with their silley policies before the strike that just stoked the fire for PATCO. It was sad for me to see so many good people walk out. Because of my experiences as a PATCO member during the 1970's sick out, I really tried to persuade many controllers not to continue their action especially after Regan made his famous Lawn speech giving the strikers 48 hrs. to return or get fired. Many good people never returned and this was a waste of some very good talent. I retired 10 years after the strike and during that time, even though attempts were made to rectify policies & programs, I could see NATCA & the FAA heading down the same old road.

Peace, A Happy Retiree

John Mueller said...

I stayed out one day and came back...I had planned that from the minute the President said we had to be back in two days. There is no words that actually express the feeling that I have carried for the last 30 years. I knew that, like you, I LOVED air traffic control and I wasn't going to give it up for anything. Too bad that the FAA didn't learn anything. And you are absolutely right...they're still the same and will always be the autocratic enity that they were at the time. From what I understand, today it's even worse than before. I'm glad I stayed, but I'm glad I'm now out and retired.

No Longer a Factor said...

Much thanks to both the "Happy Retiree" and John Mueller for sharing your thoughts.

To "Happy Retiree" I can say we at Big Time were also scheduled for six day weeks and ten hour days but that wasn’t what made our recovery tedious.

For the first few months, most of us waded into those extra shifts and their extra hours with a six-pack of adrenaline under each arm. We were absolutely committed to minimizing the strike’s effects and keep the public flying. We’d have gladly worked seven days a week to do it. The truly tedious part of our recovery centered on how quickly our traffic count was recovering and how slowly we were receiving new controllers. Aside from the military personnel who arrived almost immediately after August 3rd, we saw very few new hires or interfacility transfers into Big Time for at least a year or so. It was that conspicuous absence of relief on the horizon that eventually drained away our energy and made the recovery tedious.

I’m glad to hear of your efforts to coax people back to work. I don’t know how much of that went on or how successful it was but, as you say, “many good people never returned.” It’s ironic. Back then, while totally immersed in the whole pre-strike atmosphere and post-strike marathon, I was happy to see them gone! But they were people I had worked closely with for years. You remember how it was in a busy control room . . . you trusted your teammates implicitly. You knew them like family and would do whatever was needed to keep them out of trouble. There was an unbreakable bond that suddenly broke. I still wrestle with the enigma of it all.

To John, who said “the FAA didn’t learn anything” – I agree . . . in part. While all the trauma inflicted by the strike didn’t seem to break them of their bad habits, I do believe they learned a lot. Unfortunately, what the FAA has learned since 1981 may not always be the kind of thing they’ll immediately share with their workforce. I worry that it might sound like this though . . . “Controllers are a high-maintenance bunch. They always seem to want something and have been known to cause problems to get it. We don’t like problems. When we have problems ~ Congress grills us, the news media mocks us, public confidence in us plummets and the aviation industry screams bloody murder! Hmmm. Perhaps if we had fewer controllers we’d have fewer problems?”

Fewer controllers. Call it a plan or call it a plot. Call it a natural evolution of the profession or call it some kind of genetic engineering. For now I'll just call it the future.

Thanks for reading and for writing.

Anonymous said...

While we all have our memories, I challenge all present FAA employees to cite examples of where FAA managment has been autocratic, or less than understanding! The challenge of managing a system that does not permit any degree of failure creates resentment for those that enforce the system. The major problem with the agency, to me, was the promotion of affirmative action candidates, friends of friends, HQ favorites, and others that were poorly qualified to LEAD, much less supervise or manage!! Regional EEO groups that desparately searched for EEO issues! Managters and supervisors that 'went along to get along' vs leading. Also, the union elected officers that almost all seemed to be trouble makers, that always had a complaint and were exceptionally free with lies and distortions. Also, any action always brought some Democrat party congresspeerson's staff inquiry!

As was proposed in the Houston Plan in the early '90's, all regions should have been disbanded, all facility managers should have been given a budget and required to run their facility, all EEO groups should have been disbanded, and all staff positions should have been staffed by non-atc types. Training, airspace, and other staff organizations could have been contracted out and saved hundreds of millions each year. All traffic above FL240 should have been automated! Unions should have been refused any negotiations regarding bonuses, merit pay, or merit increases. Management should have never ever been required to speak only to the bargaining unit rep. They should have been allowed to speak to all controllers. Dress codes, the unions were a joke and caused total disrespect. When you make almost 180K a year you should be proud enough to dress in something other than a wife beater t-shirt and cutoff and flip flops.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks for writing. You’ve made some interesting observations ~ some of which I should probably devote a full Blog entry to.

Of course I can’t speak for today’s FAA employees but I suspect there are more than a few out there who would accept your challenge. What I can speak to are the many examples of autocratic and/or insensitive Management I saw in the years immediately preceding my retirement. I would like to believe things are different now and would love to hear from anyone who could cite some positive examples.

Regarding the challenge of managing a system that does not permit failure; In my view, the FAA did, in fact, permit varying degrees of failure. Maybe they still do. The first example I can think of is that of recycling people through OJT who clearly lacked the skills to do the job safely and efficiently. You must have heard the FAA catch phrase “Train to Succeed” which was frequently parodied by many frustrated OJT instructors as “Train Until they Succeed.” Looking a trainee in the eye and telling them they are incapable of meeting expectations and must move on is a difficult thing to do but Supervisors used to do it. As time passed after the strike, they were less inclined to have such discussions with their trainees for fear of being accosted by the union and overridden by facility Management or the Regional Office.

I wholeheartedly agree there was (still is?) a dearth of leadership skills in ATC Management. Time and time again, I saw selections that, in spite of the selecting official’s platitudes about the candidate, were made for any number of wrong reasons. You mentioned a few.

Thanks again for your thoughts.

aviation8n8 said...

Enjoyed and appreciate your article. I am in the category of pre, during and after. Now happily retired I have an organization of retired Airway Pioneers www.airwaypioneers.com and publish Newsletters as well as an Annual once a year. I would like permission to use your article in our 2011 Annual which will be printed later this year. Our web site has correct contact points.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thank you for writing. I tool a look at your web site. Very nice and a great concept! Reading through the list of members, I have to say I know some of those folks! Their names bring back a lot of memories. I will contact you via email to discuss using this piece for your annual Newsletter. Sounds like fun! Meanwhile, thanks again for the comments.