Accusations, Vitriol Fly in Very Public Negotiations Between FAA, Air Traffic Controllers

By Stephen Barr
Monday, February 6, 2006

The union president writes a blog, The Main Bang. He courts lawmakers on Capitol Hill in hopes of gaining leverage at the negotiating table.

The agency head calls in an outside auditor to validate her figures on pay and benefits and counter the union's claims. Top aides issue an investigative report charging that a New York union local allowed members to abuse overtime, sick leave and workers compensation benefits.

The contract negotiations between the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Federal Aviation Administration are adversarial and high-stakes. Both sides contend that the other makes false claims; both hold news briefings in hopes of advancing their bargaining position.

Last week, a federal mediator who has been sitting in on the talks called for an end to the public debate and, perhaps, the accompanying rancor.

The mediator proposed "a news blackout," which he said "would certainly be constructive and supportive to ongoing negotiations. We agreed to the news blackout, but on Thursday, NATCA refused," said Greg Martin , a spokesman for FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey .

Ruth E. Marlin , NATCA's executive vice president, declined to discuss the mediator's proposal. "I don't think it is a proper discussion to have in the press at this time," she said.

Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service spokesman John Arnold said the agency has a mediator who has talked with both sides. "As for any reports of what was discussed, we can't confirm anything because of our confidentiality rules," he said.

Last year, Blakey called for mediators to join contract negotiators and help both sides reach a voluntary agreement. NATCA argues that both sides are making progress on the contract and that mediation is not necessary.

The union claims that the FAA's interest in mediation is a way to declare that the talks are at an impasse, which would send the dispute to the Republican-controlled Congress for a 60-day review. If Congress takes no action, which seems likely, the FAA's last, best offer can be imposed on NATCA.

The FAA is one of the rare government agencies allowed by Congress to bargain over pay with unions. Blakey called in reporters last week to reiterate her belief that air traffic controllers got a lucrative deal in their 1998 contract -- one the FAA can no longer afford. The average controller made slightly more than $166,000 last year in pay and benefits, she said.

She also released data showing that the contract talks, which are approaching the six-month mark, have cost taxpayers nearly $1.7 million. The talks are being conducted at neutral sites in the Washington area and in other cities.

John S. Carr , the union president, brought dozens of controllers to Washington at the end of last month to lobby on behalf of a Senate bill that would require binding arbitration, instead of congressional review, in the event of a deadlock.

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