NATCA’s Future and the Public Employee Debate

By Robert Mark on March 7th, 2011

natca A number of Republican governors have been pegging the media’s popularity meters the past few weeks with talk of pouncing on the collective bargaining rights of public service employees, one of the last havens of solid unionism left in America, short of the aviation industry.

The most well known push comes from Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to balance a $3.6 billion budget gap over two years (which or course sounds even worse than an approximately $1.8 billion hole if you looked at it on an annual basis). Other fights continue in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan while pro-union protests have also appeared in New Mexico.

Walker says the only way to balance the budget is to convince state workers, like teachers, to bear more of their healthcare costs, an issue the unions have already conceded. The real bone of contention is Walker’s demand that union members also give up their collective bargaining rights, an element few if any members are willing to accept. Walker plans to soon support his rhetoric with layoff notices to unionized state employees.

Of course at least Scott Walker asked unions for their cooperation, (if you want to call it that) which is more than the FAA under Marion Blakey and Bobby Sturgell did with NATCA in 2005. Thanks to a convenient legislative loophole, the agency managed to shove new work rules down the union’s throat when Congress couldn’t bother to pay attention to the issues. Because of their no-strike clause, NATCA could do little to fight back except plead their case to legislators willing to listen, a tactic might want to think about dusting off.

Controller Life and Endangered Species?

State public employees signed a no-strike clause similar to the one used bywisc their federal brothers and sisters. But don’t be surprised if state employees walk off the job anyway, an action certain to make headlines.

In an era of partisan politics, here’s an element of the debate that probably won’t make headlines. Individual states also took an oath to bargain in good faith when they signed the original contract with employees. I haven’t heard of any state’s opening contract talks with their unions in an attempt to renegotiate terms to plug these budget chasms. They are simply forcing terms down the throats of their employees the way FAA once did.

Is it possible then that these anti-union governors are not simply trying to save money? Could they be trying to bust the unions? Might there be implications  and lessons here for federal workers?

Under a Democratic President like Barack Obama and a pro-union FAA Administrator like Randy Babbitt – former president of the Air Line Pilots Association – chances are pretty slim that NATCA members have much to fear. But we won’t always have a Democrat in the White House. In fact we’ve had very few blue folks in the Oval Office over the past 30 years. We will most likely have huge budget deficits for the remainder of our lives however.

These current state union conflicts are sure to set precedents for other union engagements, much the way Ronald Reagan did when he fired 14,000 PATCO union controllers in 1981. That move set in motion a little used tactic that allowed employers to hire new workers simply making strikers irrelevant.

Don’t worry NATCA members … you’re jobs and your livelihoods are safe … for now.

But a Republican president, DOT Secretary and FAA Administrator might just decide that those fat paychecks, healthcare and retirement benefits are too good to pass up in a era where our government spends more than it takes in and when thousands of non-unionized people are out of work.

Rob Mark, editor

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