Politics & Policy

Privatize Air-Traffic Control? Not if It’s a Union Giveaway

Air traffic at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, September 2013. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Thirty-five years after President Reagan crushed the air-traffic controllers’ union for calling an illegal strike, Big Labor has its eyes on recapturing the air-traffic-control system. Its unwitting allies are Republicans on Capitol Hill, who are proposing to spin off air-traffic control into a federally funded, independent non-profit corporation, a process they call “privatization.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R., Pa.) held hearings on the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016 and its proposed ATC Corporation last week. One witness in favor of the bill was Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), part of the AFL-CIO. When an AFL-CIO representative testifies in favor of privatization, taxpayers had better watch out.

Why is Chairman Shuster rushing this union giveaway bill, disguised as privatization, through his committee? Temporary Federal Aviation Administration funding authority, due to expire on March 31, was put in place in September 2015. The bill was introduced on February 3, a hearing was held on February 10, and it was voted out of committee on February 11. The bill is due on the floor of the House next week.

To see the answer, follow the money. In the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bill Shuster so far has received $118,000 from unions, including NATCA ($10,000), the Carpenters and Joiners Union ($10,000), the Laborers Union ($10,000), the Painters and Allied Trades Union ($10,000), and the Air Line Pilots Association ($10,000). He received $170,000 from unions in the 2014 cycle.

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Privatizing the air-traffic-control system would be an excellent move, but the proposed new ATC Corporation is a Trojan horse, an expansion of union power cleverly disguised as privatization. The resulting entity would limit reorganization and cost savings, benefiting neither consumers nor employees.

In a bill that gives away so much to unions, the need for a no-strike provision seems obvious. But it’s not there.

One major giveaway to the union is that nothing in the proposed legislation prohibits employees of the new ATC Corporation from going on strike. Currently, air-traffic controllers, like other government employees, take an oath against striking. Since new ATC employees would not be government workers, they would not be governed by this oath. People would be at risk of having their trips disrupted because NATCA would be able to hold travelers and airlines hostage. In a bill that gives away so much to unions, the need for a no-strike provision seems obvious. But it’s not there.

Should there be a strike, there would be no remedy for the new corporation other than to pursue arbitration. If the ATC and the union could not agree, the dispute would go before a three-person arbitration board. Neither the union nor the employer would have the option of walking away from a contract imposed by the arbitrators. There would be no consequences for the striking employees.

#share#One benefit of true privatization is the ability to reorganize and reform. But the labor provisions in the bill make this practically impossible. The “private” employees would belong to NATCA — which would also continue representing federal workers, a blatant conflict of interest. “Every collective-bargaining agreement or arbitration award that applies to an employee of the Agency and that is in force immediately before the date of transfer continues in force until its term expires,” states Section 90705 of the bill.

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NATCA would continue to set wages, and the ATC Corporation would continue to deduct union dues from those wages and send them to NATCA. That means no bonuses, no merit pay, no promotions for more qualified individuals, no layoffs for poorly performing individuals. These are all tools that private companies use to increase efficiency.

The “private” employees would belong to NATCA — which would also continue representing federal workers, a blatant conflict of interest.

And NATCA isn’t limited to setting compensation. Few reforms can be accomplished at the new ATC Corporation without NATCA approval. Under Section 90315, NATCA must be consulted about the “transfer of Federal personnel to Corporation” and the “Subsequent Transfer of Employees,” both “transfers from FAA to Corporation” and “transfers from Corporation to FAA.” (Sec. 90315)

In addition to personnel decisions, NATCA has to be consulted when any services or facilities are transferred between the FAA and the Corporation. If NATCA is not consulted, then “except as otherwise provided, there shall be a moratorium on any effort by the Administrator or the Corporation to consolidate or realign air traffic services or facilities.” (Sec. 90316)

For example, if the new ATC Corporation wanted to put in place safety-enhancing equipment for small planes, something that would benefit amateur pilots, NATCA would have to weigh in. Under the law, “the Administrator shall collaborate with . . . appropriate FAA labor groups.” (Sec. 315)

When the administrator sets up a required Regional Consistency Communications Board, “the Administrator shall consult and collaborate with . . . FAA labor organizations.” The same holds for the Remote Tower Pilot Program for Rural or Small Communities. (Sec. 616)

The Safety Oversight and Certification Advisory Committee must include “labor organizations, including collective bargaining representatives of FAA aviation safety inspectors and aviation safety engineers.” (Sec. 302)

To show that Shuster favors real privatization and is not a tool of his campaign contributors, he should allow the ATC Corporation independence from its current union — and add a no-strike provision. Removing the union goodies would help travelers and workers alike.


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