Air Controllers Vote Heavily to Form Union

Times Staff Writers

Air traffic controllers have voted overwhelmingly to form their first union since 1981, when President Reagan crushed the old union by firing more than 11,000 controllers who staged an illegal strike, the Federal Labor Relations Authority said here Thursday.

The authority said that of approximately 12,800 controllers eligible to vote, 10,769 mailed in ballots that were tallied on Thursday. Of those, 7,494 voted for certification of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. as their bargaining agent and 3,275 opposed it.

“It’s a great feeling, a real victory for controllers and for organized labor,” said Kelly Candaele, a labor organizer who has been working on the West Coast in recent months to drum up support for the new union. “This shows labor’s ability to come back from a terrible defeat to build something positive and constructive.”

John Thornton, national coordinator of the new union, said its success “will be measured by our ability to work within the system, not by confronting it.”


“We offer to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) our good will and support in the rebuilding of the nation’s air traffic control system,” he said. “What the controller asks in return is to be heard and to be recognized and to utilize the expertise we have to offer.”

Leaders of the new union have promised not to strike, saying instead that they will adopt a “non-adversarial” posture to lobby before Congress and work with the FAA for betterment of the often-criticized air traffic control system.

Controllers, National Transportation Safety Board officials and others have complained that the FAA has not kept pace with the steadily expanding volume of air traffic, that there are not enough controllers, that their morale is bad and that a lot of equipment they use is outdated.

Thornton said the union’s No. 1 priority will be to press for the hiring of more controllers for a system he described as “stressed to its limit.”


Bargaining Limited

The new union will not be able to bargain with the FAA over salaries, the length of the work week or retirement--those are set by the Administration and Congress--but the union will be able to negotiate with the agency over work rules and working conditions.

The FAA had adopted an official policy of neutrality concerning the election, but Donald D. Engen, the agency’s chief, said two weeks ago that he was “disappointed” that many controllers felt they need a union to represent them.

“Personally,” he said, “I would prefer to deal with each individual employee.”

Observers said that the fading memory of the strike that destroyed the old Professional Air Traffic Controllers Union, coupled with increased public concern over aviation safety, helped lift the new union to victory.

Formed in 1978, the old union--commonly known as PATCO--became increasingly militant, eventually threatening to strike if the FAA refused to meet its demands for substantial increases in pay, a four-day work week and other benefits.

Reagan Issues Warning

Despite admonitions that a strike by federal employees would be illegal--and warnings from Reagan that he would fire anyone who struck--about 12,000 controllers out of a total work force of approximately 16,000 walked off their jobs on Aug. 3, 1981.


The FAA recruited replacements, filling the gaps as best it could with supervisory personnel. And Reagan was as good as his word, firing all of the strikers, except the 600 or so who came back to work. Within months, PATCO was dead.

Efforts to Organize

There were several efforts to organize a new controllers’ union in the next few years--the American Federation of Government Employees was among the groups that tried--but it was not until January, 1986, that the Marine Engineers Beneficial Assn., the same organization that had sponsored PATCO, decided to give it another try.

Organizers said incidents such as the Aeromexico jetliner’s collision with a small plane over Cerritos last August that killed 82 focused public attention on aviation, creating a receptive climate for the union’s argument that a bargaining voice might contribute to air safety.

70% Victory Margin

With the financial backing of the marine engineers, organizers got the signatures needed for a certification election. On May 6, the ballots were mailed out, and Thursday’s final tally showed the margin of victory was the 70% that Thornton had predicted privately.

“We are very pleased with the results,” he said Thursday. “We’re doing what’s right and we’re doing it the right way. I feel very good about that.”

Penny Pagano reported from Washington. Eric Malnic reported from Los Angeles.