Sunday, February 10, 2008


I have been thinking a lot this week about the word "unionism". Two separate and distinct events have left me pondering this and before I get into those, I wanted to share a thought that my Brother Tom Thompson from Indianapolis Center posted on our union's BBS:

Not a Spectator Sport

'Unions are far more than a kind of employment insurance policy for working people. Plenty of union members and union officials have learned the hard way that when workers come to think of their union as a business that provides service rather than a group of people banding together to fight for common interests, the union quickly loses the clout and credibility needed to defend and advance the members' interests. When an employer looks and sees only a small handful of paid union staff or elected union leaders, and no one standing behind them, pretty soon the employer starts thinking that "the union" isn't really much to contend with. And the truth is, that's right.'

That gives us a good jumping off point for the discussion. I was asked to assist by dear friend and Brother Bob Butterworth in drafting a paper on unionism. Writing is a daunting enough task, let alone putting into words what unionism is and having to help someone who has forgotten more about unionism than I'll ever know and someone who embodies the true definition of the word. Most people can tell you what unionism isn't, but what is it – what makes someone a "union man or woman"?

It starts with selflessness, when you recognize that the good of the many outweigh the good of the few or the one (my apologies to Leonard Nimoy) – and when you not only realize that, but your actions show it as well. Workers become selfish when it comes to money and time off (which translates to seniority). This is not meant to point fingers, but simply a statement of fact from observation and from human nature.

Most recently, the FAA gave their performance reviews and handed out their blood money. Again, not a slam at anyone who rated high enough to attain a .6 or 1.8% bonus or on those who received nothing. The fact is, some did, some didn't, some were deserving others were not and the entire system is foxtrotted. That goes without saying and is immaterial to this discussion. Where unionism comes into play is how people reacted to the news that they received nothing and others received something.

At my own facility, I heard people drawing comparisons to themselves and others. Rather than attack the entire premise of a performance system based upon duties outside of keeping airplanes from swapping paint, many bemoaned the fact that they didn't get more, or so and so got some and wasn't deserving. Those who act in the true spirit of unionism were those who took the money and gave it away, to charity, to their coworkers who made less than them or to throw a wild party. I'm not saying keeping the money is wrong, I'm simply delineating from those who griped about what they got versus the other spectrum – those who recognized that the system is a mess and they used the money to make others happy.

Seniority is another topic that is near and dear to our hearts. NATCA recently organized the remaining FAA flight service stations. I want to take a moment and welcome our newest NATCA Brothers and Sisters to the fold! For those who do not know the details of the FSS outsourcing, the short story is the government awarded a contract to Lockheed-Martin in 2005 to take over the flight service stations, with the exception of those in Alaska. The details aren't germane to this topic, so I will leave you to Google for the story. Organizing new employees under NATCA's banner always brings about the issue of seniority, since many of the bargaining units that NATCA has organized contain members who have spent time in the air traffic controller bargaining unit, or vice-versa. The FSS controllers are no exception.

A discussion has ensued on NATCA's private BBS about the impact the organizing of the FSS controllers will have on individual seniority. As I stated, this is one of the "me" issues and I cannot blame an individual for feeling that way. Many of us have waiting 15 or 20 years to have a particular set of days off of time off in the summer with their families. Nevertheless, we should be looking at seniority from a perspective of what is fair for the majority or for the collective, rather than the individual. It really doesn't have to be a selfish issue, if everyone were to give a little. Perhaps my own opinion isn't that of a "unionist" either. I have long held that each bargaining unit should have their own seniority based solely upon time spent in that unit and nothing else. That certainly isn't an inclusive idea; rather it is an initiative to give the policy the only common denominator that we all share. It still doesn't rectify the fact that my proposal is prejudiced against new bargaining units.

Which brings me to the second issue that has me thinking about unionism. I returned to work on Monday after a week in Washington, doing the work of the union. I loved being there with the 400 activists on Capitol Hill and at our National HQ Thursday and Friday watching our elected leaders and staff in action. I also loved seeing my friends, whom I see all too infrequently. The first thing that caught my eye was the NATCA bulletin board. The fact is, rather than a fount of information for my members, it had become a vast wasteland of month-old Dilbert cartoons and an occasional press release or letter from Congress. About once a week, one of my members posts personal commentary on FAA. It's not too scathing, but apparently it was enough to get a reaction from an anonymous individual. This "person" called out me Brother for expressing himself. Two days after I removed it from the board, a photocopy appeared with the following note:

RM, In case you didn't get a chance to see the strip I put on the board, here it is. I happen to like working in ALB. If you don't, do us all a favor and leave. With your skills I'm sure Burger King would love to hire you.

You're a Pathetic Little Man

Of course, this gutless individual didn't sign their art work and the manager doesn't want to get involved in a "spat" between two controllers, even though this was an unprovoked and anonymous drive-by shooting by a coworker. Regardless of who did this, it certainly doesn't embody unionism. It was a selfish, gutless, classless and low-rent act. What followed were several acts of unionism. Members stood by the individual and his right to express his viewpoints. One member even typed his own note to the "offender" and posted it on the bulletin board. The entire incident shook the workforce at its core, but caused people to rally around the victim and we came out the other side because of our unionism.

I don't have all of the answers about unionism, nor do I always embody the spirit of unionism – but I do my best. We all need to do our best and pass along these lessons to the future generation.

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