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Monday, April 7, 2008

Obstruction and contrariness

Ok, so I went to the thesaurus to get the antonym to collaboration and cooperation. I changed the first word when I read an e-mail from my good friend and former NATCA Vice-President Tom Cavanaugh. Today I was reminded that we have a very long road back to collaboration and cooperation, including at Albany.

There are a lot of things the manager at Albany Tower does not comprehend. Within the past two, we have called him out publicly for:

  • Informing his staff in person of an employee infected with MRSA, then posting the same information in the "non-mandatory" or "C" binder, which is rarely read.


     

  • Twice scheduling controllers for nine consecutive shifts without a day off.


     

  • Telling an employee that she had to secure a shift swap or he would deny her jury duty, then accusing the employee of "playing games" when she wasn't needed for jury service one day.

It would be laughable if it weren't so sad. Today, I found out that Albany was getting two new controllers. Unfortunately, I found out from my VP who found out from a non-union member who found out from a management official. I decided to ask the manager for an explanation before I approached his bosses once again. This manager proceeded to tell me of one new employee while acting like it was no big deal. When I explained (again) why it's important for the agency to comply with the law and not deal directly with the controllers, he responded by:

  • Explaining that they were trying to do right by this individual and now I was making a big deal out of nothing.


     

  • Blaming me for never being in the building (well, when he is – gee boss, I'll take more official time if that's what it takes – otherwise, feel free to drop in on the mid)


     

  • Stating that they only found out Friday.


     

  • Stating that he wasn't talking to the controllers (even though someone in management was).


     

  • Accusing me of trying to "make hay" out of every little issue on behalf of some issue outside of the building.


     

  • Finally, accusing me of being the problem in the building and stating that I "don't care about the employees at Albany.


     

To recap: I ask him why he did not inform me, the exclusive representative of the NATCA Albany Tower bargaining unit, that we were getting a new employee and suddenly I don't care about the employees at Albany. He even made light of the e-mails I had sent him, describing them in a whiny, baby like tone. Excellent interpersonal skills, boss!

Of course, I informed my RVP of all of this and he informed my manager's boss again. Folks, this is the antithesis to partnership. This is truly a relationship with no foundation of trust to build upon. From day one when I became the facility representative, I have approached this man with the olive branch. Day one he decided to go on and on about how bad the previous NATCA rep was (great way to forge a relationship – rail on my friend and union brother). Apparently, this man didn't have a problem with the former NATCA rep. This man has a problem with unions and with union people.

I have seen him put on a good face when his boss is in the building. Nevertheless, it seems that each time I brought an issue to him in a good faith effort to resolve it at the lowest possible level, I was met with charges that the air traffic controllers at Albany do things just as bad as their supervisors (seemingly to deflect criticism or to convince me to simply look the other way) and that I am just trying to make a name for myself or "make hay" for issues of national scope. My previous Vice-President, one of the more reasonable people you ever will meet, has hit the same brick wall. This manager will not even speak to my current Vice-President.

It is apparent that we are a long ways away from the days of QTP – from the days where labor and management worked together in earnest to solve problems. We are even beyond traditional labor-management relations, while uncomfortable at times, there is still dialogue in an effort to problem solve and negotiate. Today's environment is heavy-handed management with no regard for the union and the excuse factory when they get caught playing with their food.

One day we might have a labor-friendly President and a labor-friendly Congress. One day a President may actually reinstate partnership, much like President Clinton did in October of 1993 with Executive Order 12871. At that time, we are going to have to find that foundation of trust again, begin to assume the other party is properly motivated and get down to working in the best interests of the bargaining unit. Until then, we are left to sort through the lies, deceit and end-runs of this crowd who carries the anti-labor water for the Bush Administration. I'm sure Albany is moving up the speed dial at the regional office!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Collaborate and Cooperate

I make no secret about how I became a union activist. A very large man and staunch union supporter convinced me that belonging to NATCA would be the right thing to do and a smart career move on my part. I believe it would also keep my health care costs down, but I cannot be sure of that. It really didn't take that much convincing and the story is more colorful that way. I have heard stories of people who signed their membership forms on pool tables and pinball machines in smoke-filled bar rooms. I signed up in the NATCA office at Syracuse Tower. 18 months later, I was the President of my local – two weeks before I became a full performance level controller.

I became active in NATCA at a time when collaboration and cooperation were the new buzzwords. NATCA and FAA had just signed an agreement on a new project called Quality Through Partnership, also called QTP or QTiP. The idea was that the union and management would solve problems by consensus building rather than traditional negotiations. It was to akin to interest based bargaining. Union members and first line supervisors worked issues for individual facilities, only involving the local President and facility manager when consensus could not be reached.

When two parties enter into negotiations, there has to be a level of trust. Each party has their own interests, so the assumption going in is that the opposition is not to be trusted – or, at best, trust but verify. This is a very difficult place to start from. Alternative dispute resolution or interest based bargaining is, in my opinion, much more difficult but much more rewarding. Each side must set aside their preconceived notions, have a greater level of trust going in and try and understand the interests of the opposition. These were some of the basic tenants of QTP and I would argue that the program would fail without them. The mantra was "assume positive intent", meaning that each side had to assume that the other side was properly motivated when they came to the bargaining table.

The outgoing local President, Blair Tucker told me he was skeptical that the FAA would ever fully collaborate with NATCA. Blair argued that the union had to give up too many of its own rights and would have to trust an agency that had proved, in his mind, to be untrustworthy. Blair discussed the issue with then-NATCA Executive Vice-President Joe Bellino (on a side note, Joe retired from the FAA this week and should be congratulated on an illustrious career of service to NATCA and the FAA). Joe asked Blair to embrace the project, reasoning that by being involved early in the process, he would have the ability to give the thumbs up or down as someone who tried QTP. He could speak as an informed participant. Furthermore, the FAA would have to give as well. The thought was they would bargain the substance of issues where by law, they only were required to bargain the impact of the change to the NATCA bargaining unit and how the change would be implemented. Blair agreed to support the project.

I was fortunate to have the experience of participating in QTP from the beginning. I watched the transformation of labor-management relations throughout Upstate New York and throughout the Eastern Region. Much of our success can be attributed to having strong QTP coordinators who sincerely believed in the project as well as a manager, Russ Shedd, who was a reasonable man and recognized the benefits of collaboration. I remember by first QTP Hub meeting, where the ten local Presidents and ten facility managers from Upstate New York met to discuss issues facing our hub. The ten NATCA reps sat on one side of the table and the ten FAA managers sat on the other side. The meeting was cordial at best, but it was clear that some of the old school dinosaur managers and union reps would have to be dragged kicking into this process. As time wore on, issues were resolved and relationships developed. By the time I left Syracuse, the managers and reps were sitting with one another rather than across the table. The union reps and managers were even dressed in a fashion that a stranger entering the room couldn't tell who was who without a program.

I watched the regional transformation as well. NATCA invited the Eastern Region Division manager to speak at a regional conference. The room was filled with smoke and the podium was dressed with two overflowing ashtrays where Regional Vice-President Tim Haines had been speaking and smoking. Gary Tucker took the podium to address the union representatives. He gave a standard "company-line" speech and then took a few questions. One of the union reps asked about regional mandates of spending X hours per shift plugged in and how morale was down and errors were up. He asked when the region was going to provide relief. Gary's answer? "When are you going to stop having errors?" With that, three quarters of the reps got up and stormed out of the room. Gary left shortly thereafter, in a huff, claiming that he had been set up and would never return.

As collaboration took hold and relationships grew, so did the relationship at the regional level. Gary did return to address the NATCA reps and spent two days talking to reps and getting a feel for what was happening in the field. He participated in some team building exercises and left the meeting in a much better place than the previous time he had visited. I remember the NATCA reps having a sense that something big was happening and that perhaps this change could be beneficial for the long-term health of labor-management relations between NATCA and FAA.

I decided to recount this today because NATCA was in a pretty dark place prior to QTP. The PATCO strike occurred on August 3, 1981 and 11,000 air traffic controllers were fired, certainly a low point for labor-management relations. I was not a controller during the strike or in the years when there was not a controllers union, but I have been told that those times were similar to today. On May 2, 1987, NATCA was certified to represent the controllers. The first collective bargaining agreement was signed and ratified in 1989. QTP began around 1991. Ten short years removed from a strike, air traffic controllers and FAA management agreed to work in collaboration to solve problems. I can speak from experience – and many people will disagree – but this process (or some type of interest based bargaining) works and is essential to the long term health of the nation's air traffic control system.

QTP did not fail because of a lack of trust or an unwillingness of the parties to collaborate and cooperate. It failed because the cube dwellers in Washington and the middle-management types felt slighted and cut out of the process. They undercut the process at every turn and concocted lies and half-truths to convince the Republican controlled Congress to cease funding for QTP or any similar program based on collaboration between NATCA and FAA. How short sighted of them! Oddly enough, these are the same people who planted the seeds of destruction during the most recent negotiations that ended in the tragic imposition of work rules in 2006 and the continued obliteration of the morale of the work force and the aviation system as we knew it.

The time will come for collaboration, I sincerely believe that. At some point, union leaders and management leaders will recognize that it is a much better process. Either that, or the lawmakers will force the parties into some type of partnership. Until NATCA members have a ratified collective bargaining agreement, the trust will never be there to support this. NATCA recently signed an agreement for self-reporting of errors by air traffic controllers. There is much debate today internally between NATCA members as to whether this is a good agreement or whether this is the right time. While I commend the NATCA activists for hammering out an agreement in this environment, I do not trust the FAA to adhere to their end of the bargain. Until NATCA members are working under a ratified agreement or until we raise the white flag and accept their work rules, we should not be negotiating side agreements on ideas, concepts or projects that are built upon a foundation of trust for our employer.

As a union activist and labor-relations scholar, I know deep down inside that partnership, alternative dispute resolution and interest based bargaining are in the best interests of the union. The FAA must do something to regain my trust before I am willing to take that leap with them.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Take My Hand, Precious Lord

40 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in while standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King had returned to Memphis to conduct a second march in support of the sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 who were on strike. We must never forget the roots of the labor movement are deeply entwined with the civil rights movement. It's as much about human rights as it is labor and civil rights.

Dr. King delivered many moving speeches in his short lifetime. One of the most famous titled "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" (Part I and Part II) was delivered the day before. If you have never heard it - or even if you have - it is worth a listen. I was fortunate to study the sanitation workers strike last year in a labor studies class and I am embarrassed to admit, listened to Reverend King's speeches for the first time. His words ring every bit as true 40 years later.




In class, we watched the documentary, "I Am a Man", which told the story of the sanitation workers. These workers walked off the job - stood tall against a defiant mayor - for better wages and better working conditions. Men were killed by faulty equipment that the workers had informed the city of Memphis about. Workers who were sent home because of inclimate weather were not paid. They took a stand and Dr. King stood with them. They walked peacefully, carrying signs with the simple slogan, "I Am a Man". It was only after Dr. King's death that the mayor finally settled the strike with the sanitation workers.

One year before his assassination, April 4, 1967, Dr. King delivered another speech at the New York City Riverside Church denouncing the war in Vietnam. His words ring as true today, five years into our current war, as we rapidly approach five years since the declaration of mission accomplished. For your listening pleasure, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

I Am NATCA

I thought I would use the following excerpt from a recent e-mail to re-launch my writing career. (Yeah, right!) I went through a period recently where I didn't feel much like writing or doing much of anything. I took some time to reflect finish my school work and decided now is the right time to once again start sharing some of my thoughts. The following is plagiarized from my own work. It comes from an e-mail sent to a select few people in NATCA and I wanted to share it with you all. I edited it down, because I believe in the message and did not want it to get lost in the issue that the e-mail was sent in response to.


I am a union member, a union advocate and a union activist. I do what I do and what I have done for seventeen years without fanfare or award and without the expectation of any. I do so because I believe in what I do and I believe I can make a difference. For my service to this union, you (and the membership at large) owe me nothing, except the opportunity to continue to serve this union as I see fit, on MY terms – no one else's. That includes my choice to steer clear of union politics. That includes my choice to remain out of divisive situations, where the only reason people seek to involve me is because I have a name and I have credibility that they seek to use for whatever reason.


Discounting the time I spent in training (two years, four months at Syracuse; eight months at Tucson; four months at Tucson TRACON; six months at SoCal TRACON Departure Area; three months at Albany) – I have been either President of my Local or Representative of my area for sixteen out of seventeen years. I got tossed for six months when I opted to move to Tucson. I got tossed for three months at Tucson over the national seniority issue. I spent the first three months as an FPL at Albany swearing to Mitch Herrick I would never be the facrep. I tell you this only as a reminder as to why you owe it to me to remain as involved or not (in this discussion).

  • The man who signed me up to NATCA is an operations manager at ZDC. He also involved me in the candidacy of Tim Haines for NEA RVP (God rest his soul) and put me forward as his successor as facrep. My OJTI and NATCA VP is a supervisor at SYR.

  • The man I supported for NWP RVP is in some management position at PCT or the command center – who the fuck knows.


  • The man I ran against in the NWP is a manager of some sort.


  • The man who beat him is dead (God rest his soul as well).


The fact is, I do not apologize for supporting any of them. I do not apologize for running for RVP, even if I wasn't qualified or at a "big house". I never apologized for supporting Bob in 2003 or John in 2003 and 2006. I still never have. That doesn't change the fact that I refuse to take up residence in a corner of NATCA until someone who I support gets elected to office. I also refuse to allow anyone – ANYONE – to question my motivation for supporting one candidate over another or for doing the work of my union.


The two men who gave their all – gave their lives for NATCA – are two men who I admire greatly. Tim Haines and Kevin McGrath were both very intelligent and union to their very core. No one could EVER question their motivation as representatives of this union. They truly gave their lives for NATCA – for US. Each of them battled their demons (some of the same demons, actually) and often times were ostracized for it. Tim was run out of office by the very people who put them there – the OM at ZDC and Joe Fruscella, et. al. in the NY metro area. Kevin resigned, never able to manage the battle between his union obligations, his family and his demons. Regardless, I still hold them in the highest esteem for who they were and what they stood for. You owe it to their memory and to what they gave to NATCA to fix this divisiveness and set all of the other bullshit aside.


Air traffic controllers and NATCA members – at least the good air traffic controllers and the activists in NATCA – all have a lot in common. The one thing we probably all have in common is we're all type-A's, we don't take shit off from anyone and we all think we have all of the answers. We have a bitch of a time "just getting over it". There are not enough hours in the day to juggle family, union and work – not to mention our personal grudges and baggage we have accumulated. It's time to get a porter for the baggage and to build a bridge and get over it (no offense intended to the bridge-builders of our union intended).


I know it's easier said than done and it's easy for me to say that, sitting here on the sidelines in my lawn-chair and Speedo sipping Mai-Tai's on the beach (would you believe in my EZ chair, looking out at the snow, sipping diet Coke?). I am not an RVP or LR specialist, faced with an angry mob each and every day. What I am is NATCA – and for that, and for my service, you owe it to ME to find a way to move forward from today and to join the battle for tomorrow.


In Solidarity,


Tony Yushinsky
President
NATCA ALB Local
tony@natca.org