Politics & Policy

What Would Reagan Do?

Not what some Republicans in Congress are poised to do with air-traffic controllers.

When President Ronald Reagan fired those striking air-traffic controllers in 1981, he refused to let union members impose unreasonable demands on the federal government. In that case, 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) had illegally walked off the job. Next week, however, in stark contrast to Reagan, Congress is poised to surrender to PATCO’s successor union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), by refusing to let a final employment-terms offer from the Federal Aviation Administration take effect.

In 1996, the Clinton administration allowed NATCA to bargain over wages and benefits, a right enjoyed by few federal-employee unions. NATCA has been driving a hard bargain with the FAA ever since. Since getting a new contract in 1998, NATCA controllers’ compensation has increased by 75 percent to an average of $173,000 a year. To control ballooning costs, the FAA has offered a proposal that would protect the total compensation of all current controllers, but would reduce the compensation of new hires by offering $127,000 in salary and benefits in the first five years.

This cost-cutting offer will take effect unless Congress intervenes, as it is permitted to do within 60 days of the agency and the union having reached an impasse. And intervention is just what some members of Congress have in mind: Instead of letting the FAA rein in the most generous compensation scheme in the federal workforce, the Democratic caucus and as many as 70 Republicans want to force the FAA to continue negotiations with NATCA.

Michigan Republican Congressman Joe Knollenberg strongly opposes the plan to derail the FAA’s proposal. As he explains that the union’s current demand amounts to a total compensation increase of $1.9 billion over the next five years,  he compares the six-figure salary of the average NATCA union member in his Detroit-area district with other local salaries: He mentions firefighters ($42,100), police officers ($48,770), and registered nurses ($59,380). He also brings his campaign against “out-of-control union compensation” closer to home for his colleagues: The 100 top NATCA union members make $197,000 a year, a salary well above members of Congress and cabinet secretaries.

Rather than preventing the FAA from controlling its sky-high compensation costs, Knollenberg thinks Congress should use federal money more wisely to fund a critical modernization plan for the national air-traffic-control system. However, he fears that some of his Republican colleagues may see this issue as an easy way to curry favor with the unions.

With the deadline for congressional intervention approaching, the House has put a pro-NATCA bill sponsored by Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette on the suspension calendar (with a requirement that it needs a 2/3 vote to pass) for next week. The vote on this bill will force Congress to choose sides in this collective-bargaining dispute, in which the FAA could be forced back into interminable negotiations with NATCA. Although Republican House leaders are expected to oppose the bill, the current betting has support for the measure close to the required 2/3.

And so, within days, a Republican Congress that claims Ronald Reagan’s legacy will have the chance to prove whether they really are his worthy heirs.

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