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Air Traffic Control Reforms Will Give Us Modern Technology, Not Union Giveaways

Guest Post by David Grizzle
Former Chief Operating Officer and Chief Counsel, FAA

As the former chief operating officer and chief counsel at the FAA, I saw how the lack of modern technology hampers us from more effectively routing the 2 million people who fly every day. We are one of the few remaining developed countries in the world that relies on paper strips and outdated technology like ground-based radar to direct the most technologically advanced planes the world has seen.

We have a historic opportunity now to reform air traffic control to enhance safety, provide a steady and reliable funding stream for high-tech projects, and improve the flight experience for consumers. Imagine knowing with certainty when you arrive at the airport for your weekly flight home that you won’t be delayed because of bad weather in another part of the country. Or knowing that your flight is taking the most direct route, which will get you home to your family sooner.

You may have a seen two recent pieces in National Review claiming that such reforms would be a giveaway to the unions. This is absolutely incorrect. There are numerous assertions that just don’t stand up to a detailed reading of the proposed legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation does not expand union rights, rather it provides an unprecedented opportunity to move employees out of the federal government and toward modern pension and benefit structures, while still retaining a strike prohibition that is unprecedented in the private sector and crucial to maintaining stability in air traffic control.

I would like to draw your attention to a few erroneous assertions that have been made and the relevant sections of the legislation.

1. “Nothing in the proposed legislation prohibits employees of the new ATC Corporation from going on strike.” WRONG. Section 90703 of the bill makes some sections of Title 5 of the U.S. Code applicable to the new corporation, including Section 7116(b)(7), which makes it an enforceable unfair labor practice for a union to call, participate in, or fail to stop a strike. If a union violates this provision, management can obtain an order stopping the strike (Section 7118(a)(7)), and, far more significantly, under Section 7120(f), the union can lose its status as the representative of the employees (and no longer receive dues)—a very substantial financial penalty for the union. Employees would not have any of the strike rights provided by the NLRA and thus could be fired for participating in a strike, just as they now can be. The assertion that arbitration is the only remedy for strikes is simply incorrect. The protections against strikes in the AIRR Act are far stronger than for any private industry, and frankly a remarkable achievement given the reforms in the bill. 

2. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association “would continue to set wages.” WRONG. Wages for members of the ATC union will remain the same as they are today. There is nothing in the legislation that allows the newly formed company to supersede existing collective bargaining agreements. The terms of the next contract—including wages—would be determined by negotiation between the union and the company, providing new opportunities to modernize wage, benefit and work rule structures. And remember, the union will not be able to use a strike threat as leverage in negotiations.  

3. “Negotiations will involve a stronger union that has a new tool of binding arbitration. ... Two [of three] arbitrators ... are handpicked by the union.” WRONG. Binding arbitration is currently required for collective bargaining negotiations (not a “new tool”) and is a necessary and valuable adjunct to a strike prohibition. Binding arbitration further reduces unions’ leverage in negotiations by ensuring that protracted labor negotiations cannot create labor unrest. Arbitrators are selected with equal input from both sides from a qualified, knowledgeable pool of private sector arbitrators. The claim that unions will pick two of the arbitrators is totally incorrect.

4. “Few reforms can be accomplished at the new ATC Corporation without [union] approval.” WRONG. The piece cites Sections 90315 and 90316, both of which discuss conferring with the unions and collaborating with the unions. Conferring and collaboration do not mean determination. Numerous times when I was the Chief Operating Officer at the FAA, I consulted with unions and my front line management regarding a decision I needed to make, and sometimes I made exactly the opposite decision from what the unions had advocated. But I felt that I was on more solid ground for having sought their insights. The House bill simply preserves the current collaborative structure, but gives no veto power or decision-making authority to the unions. 

These reforms will create a not-for-profit company that will become a gold standard for air traffic control.