Arbitrator’s Decision

Air traffic controllers for the Federal Aviation Administration have been working under imposed work rules since Labor Day of 2006 after failing to come to a contract agreement.

This year the Obama Administration forced the FAA and the air traffic controllers’ union, NATCA, back to the bargaining table to resolve the dispute.  The contract articles they were unable to agree upon were eventually sent to a panel of arbitrators, who made their decision regarding those items.

(This isn’t really new news, and some other websites have already discussed these issues, but I figured I’d add my two cents as well…)

Here is the introduction from that decision in August of 2009 (including my highlighted sections):


The Award in this case is the product of the final step of a jointly bargained “Mediation to Finality” process (hereinafter, occasionally, “MTF”), adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (“NATCA”) on May 12, 2009. [Exhibit 1]. As the name implies, the dispute resolution mechanism began with an extended series of mediation sessions that produced broad agreement on a wide variety of subjects. The MTF Agreement marked the critically important first step taken by these parties in their joint commitment to forge a new, more productive, relationship.

In 2006, these parties failed in an attempt to achieve a mutually bargained successor to the then-existing “Green Book”. Subsequently, management imposed its own version of all conditions of employment. That so-called “White Book” contained numerous provisions that served, from 2006 to 2009, as the terms and conditions of employment for bargaining unit employees; ranging from the trivial to the essential. Some provisions addressed work rules related to the daily business of running this highly complex shop. Others were economic take-backs, in the name of fiscal prudence, that constituted unprecedented draconian reductions in compensation, bordering on the unconscionable.

The “WhiteBook” included the following preamble, evidently imported wholesale by the Agency from the negotiated 2003 (“Green Book”) Labor Agreement:

This Collective Bargaining Agreement is designed to improve working conditions for air traffic controllers, traffic management coordinators/specialists and US NOTAM Office (USNOF) specialists, facilitate the amicable resolution of disputes between the Parties and contribute to the growth, efficiency and prosperity of the safest and most effective air traffic control system in the world. The true measure of our success will not be the number of disagreements we resolve, but rather the trust, honor and integrity with which the Parties jointly administer this Agreement. 2.

Whatever else may be said of the White Book document, it is neither a “Collective Bargaining Agreement” nor an “Agreement.” The abrupt imposed changes in working conditions from the collectively negotiated Green Books to the unilateral White Book was so profound, and spawned so much hostility and distrust, that the labor-management relationship since has degenerated into a state of dysfunctionality.

2 This hortatory language, stands as a monument to wishful thinking. Among other things, unilateral imposition of this document generated more than 450,000 grievances which, to this day remain unresolved. Whether or not it resulted in improved working conditions and contributed to growth, efficiency and prosperity are matters of open, continuous, vigorous and very heated debate between the parties.

We note, with approval and relief, that the Parties reached tentative agreement [TA]on the same language as the Preamble to their new Collective Bargaining Agreement. We have incorporated by reference that TA (and all others) as our Award in this case, which means the Preamble language is, once more, accurate.

Having considered the deteriorated relationship of these parties, the damage inflicted by continuing personnel warfare, and the substantial stakes in maintaining a safe and efficient air traffic control system, the Obama Administration intervened. In March 2009, the undersigned Panel was appointed to explore ways by which the parties could confront, and hopefully ameliorate, the existing situation.<snip>

The last three years FAA managers referred to the “White Book” (the imposed work rules) continually and repeatedly as a “contract”, which it never was.  But they apparently believed that saying it over and over would make it true.

This did nothing but further frustrate the workforce (which seemed to be the general idea all along).

The FAA willingly and with forethought utterly and completely destroyed labor relations with the controller workforce with the imposed work rules.

They alleged that the pay freezes and “B” pay scale were necessary to fund NextGen, the next generation air traffic system for the United States that hasn’t even been clearly defined yet (i.e. “money pit”).

But only controllers had their pay frozen while managers and all other FAA employees continued to receive yearly raises.

The FAA imposed a dress code and enforced it with an iron fist merely to show they had the power and were in charge.  (If that’s not the case however, and FAA management actually believed a dress code for people who sit in dark rooms behind radar scopes and in tall tower cabs where the general public rarely if ever sees them was that important surely shows how messed up FAA management truly is.)

FAA management did everything in it’s power to make sure the controller workforce was made to feel powerless, worthless, overpaid and took every opportunity to institute absurd rules just to show they could, while at the same time showing how much they truly despised their employees.

The intent was to demoralize air traffic controllers in order to control them. The imposed work rules were always all about control. And most FAA managers loved all of it.

But the arbitrators saw what was really happening, and their introduction verbally rebukes the FAA for their actions. It’s an acknowledgment that for the last three years that the FAA has indeed been unfair to air traffic controllers in spite of their claims to the contrary.

The abrupt imposed changes in working conditions from the collectively negotiated Green Books to the unilateral White Book was so profound, and spawned so much hostility and distrust, that the labor-management relationship since has degenerated into a state of dysfunctionality.

And isn’t that exactly what the labor-management relationship in a time critical safety oriented job like air traffic should be – dysfunctional?…

However, that’s all the arbitrators’ rebuke was – verbal.

It’s a disappointment to many including me, but it will have to do.

Now the union gets a real ratification vote on the articles of the contract that the arbitrators didn’t rule on (unlike the imposed work rules).

If the air traffic controllers get a contract then things might change for the better in the FAA.  But the managers will be the same, with the same mentality, so I’m not banking on a lot of things improving, at least not anytime soon. And the controller workforce won’t find it easy to forget these last three years either.

It’s just a baby step in the right direction; that’s all. FAA management will be responsible for taking the organization in a productive direction and re-establishing a partnership with its controller workforce instead of continuing to act like overbearing power-crazed prison wardens.


  1. I can’t imagine anybody in the workforce having any degree of respect left for management. They’ve shown themselves to be all too willing followers of flawed policy. That’s not to say that there aren’t some acceptable supervisors who got caught in the middle but isn’t it interesting the ones who were elevated to area manager status and how much they epitomize the Peter Principle? Name one area manager who you have even an ounce of respect for and who doesn’t have a reputation for having been a marginal controller. No doubt their spouses, family and friends all have an understanding that they’ve been promoted because of their gifted ability as controllers. shaking my head.

  2. Maybe ‘marginal’ is too strong a description. A better word may be ‘mediocre’. Mediocre as controllers and no better as managers. I’d love for just one of them to have stood up and said it was all bullshit but none of them did. It may be one thing to say they were in a no win position where they couldn’t speak out but it’s a whole other thing when they embrace the culture as our area manager did and continues to. There can be no excuse for that.

  3. It’s true that I can’t name a single area manager I have any respect for. I can name several that I absolutely loathe simply because they are incapable of rationale, objective and/or independent thought.

    That’s why they didn’t object to the imposed work rules.

    I’m sure those managers brag to the outside world about their “superior skill set”, an expression we heard years ago from a manager. They’re controllers and managers; thus a superior skill set.

    Only people on the inside really know how it really is, and explaining it to outsiders just makes it look like sour grapes.

    Too bad most of them were bad as controllers which is why they bailed and became managers. Unfortunately they’re equally bad at being managers.

    And there we are…

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