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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.

2 comments:

FX said...

Nice post Yaz. I too remember the days of QTP and the doubts Blair and much of the membership had. The program worked until the "other" FAA got involved. That would be the ones running the show now and it shows in every contract, program or procedure they implement.
Much of the success in our HUB QTP program was due to the open minded ATM and HUB manager Russ Shedd that reffered me to a fired PATCO controller to buy my house, and the strong NATCA members that participated.
Personally, I could never find myself interested to participate in QTP because of my lack of patience with the dinosaurs and there were many in FAA management.
I commend you all for the patience, solidarity and participation in QTP. Those were the good ole days until the FAA HQ idiots got involved and started to realize their true place in the FAA (support). Once that happened it all began to tumble down and revert to the early 80's FAA we now have.

Paul said...

Excellent post, amigo. My experience with QTP was more at the local level, but it worked for us very well at ZSE.