FAA Labor Unions Seek Obama's Help

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008; 12:00 AM

Labor unions at the Federal Aviation Administration are looking to President-elect Barack Obama for quick action to settle long-running contract conflicts at the agency.

The agency's two largest labor unions, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, which represents technicians and safety inspectors, say their top priority is resolving the disputes.

"We want a contract," said Patrick Forrey, the controllers' union president. "We've gone two years without a contract."

Labor leaders say the unions will offer the new administration a "to-do list" involving presidential executive orders on assorted labor policy questions. One would reinstate a Clinton-era policy that required managers at federal agencies to work cooperatively with labor unions. The need, the leaders say, arises partly from labor's struggles with the Bush administration at agencies like the FAA. They spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions have not yet taken place.

Created 50 years ago, the FAA's chief responsibility is safeguarding the nation's aviation system. But the agency has also built a reputation when it comes to labor problems, with conservatives pressing management prerogatives and the unions pushing back. The air traffic controllers' union has effectively been at war with the administration for nearly the entire Bush presidency.

Under federal law, the FAA is only agency in the federal government that negotiates with its union over pay and benefits.

FAA labor strife stretches back to Ronald Reagan's firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981. The battles have taken a toll on the agency; it ranks 204th out of 222 agencies in a "best places to work" index compiled last year by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

The latest series of battles between the 15,000-member controllers' union and FAA started in 2005, when the two sides came together to hammer out a new contract. Unable to bridge the divide over pay and workplace issues, the agency imposed a contract that cut pay for incoming controllers by 30 percent, curtailed overtime, stopped controllers from leaving FAA premises at lunchtime and instituted a dress code.

"The work environment is horrible," Forrey said. "There's no respect for people. Discipline is the name of the game. It's rule by stick instead of accountability for management and their actions."

Forrey said the agency's "shut-up-and-sit-down" culture has led to management retaliation against FAA whistle-blowers, understaffing and safety problems.

As a senator, Obama was friendly to the controllers' cause. In 2006, he introduced a bill designed to stop the agency from imposing the FAA contract on the controllers. The bill stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

In a fact sheet on transportation issues, the Obama campaign criticized the FAA's treatment of the air traffic controllers, citing the agency for "neglecting to treat them with the respect they deserve." The statement also said an Obama administration would direct the new FAA administrator to work cooperatively with controllers' to "restore morale and improve working conditions" a the agency. It doesn't specify an Obama stance on collective bargaining or contract issues.

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