There will be no champagne for this anniversary celebration
Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 3, 2006
Today I am celebrating an anniversary n a silver one to be specific.
It has nothing to do with my wife, although we have one of those coming up later this month. And it has nothing to do with my job here at the News-Herald.
This is a rather unusual anniversary, one I share with some 11,500 others across the country.
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It was on this day 25 years ago that I was fired from my job as an air traffic controller.
I was a member of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, more commonly known as PATCO.
On Aug. 3, 1981, after taking a nationwide vote among the members, and achieving a minimum of 70 percent support, we put down our pencils and headsets and walked off the job.
For the next few months, we picketed outside airports all across America, believing at that time that we would prevail and the government would give us what we asked for in a new contract.
For those who don’t remember, or don’t know anything about this, we asked for three basic things in those contract negotiations
– A 10 percent salary increase over the life of the contract. At that time our contracts were running for three years, which would make that raise about 3.3 percent annually.
– We asked for a four-day work week. ATC was, and still is a very stressfull job. And like other stressful jobs, such as police and firefighters, we wanted a little more ‘down’ time between shifts.
– We asked for the government to provide financial assistance for career training in other fields for those who left the job early. The government had done a survey some years before that showed most controllers would not make it to retirement, due to illness, the stress or other factors.
It didn’t seem like a lot for ask for back then. And we thought we would be back to work in a matter of days.
But we overlooked one thing. There was a new president in the White House, Ronald Reagan, and this was his first domestic issue.
He had to at least appear strong in dealing with us, letting the millions of others in the country know that he would not tolerate such actions.
Reagan gave us an ultimatum, to return to work within 24 hours, or be fired. We balked, and he stood his ground.
Looking back, I see a few things that worked against us. One was we had attempted to do this several months earlier, but we failed to reach the 70-percent consensus among the workers.
Of course the government saw what we did and fully expected us to try it again. Based on that assumption, they put together a contingency plan that called bringing in military controllers and rehiring retirees to fill-in during any strike.
They also had a plan to reduce the number of flights to allow the replacements to handle them safely.
We also underestimated the president, thinking instead that he was on our side in this situation. As candidate for the presidency, Reagan was on the record saying we definitely had issues and they needed to be addressed. But that was then. Things were different once he took office.
Today, I see why Reagan did what he did. We gave him no choice. And I hold no ill will against him for it.
We should have also listened to members of other unions, such as the AFL-CIO, whose president told our president, Bob Poli, that our timing was wrong. We should not go on strike so early in Reagan’s presidency, they warned.
And then there were issues with other unions, such as the pilots, airline mechanics and companies that serviced the airlines all crossing our picket lines as though we were not even there.
It was just a losing battle all around. But, of course, we didn’t believe that at the time.
I spent nearly four months picketing in Allentown, Pa., until the weather became bitterly cold and the $25 a week in union money and what I made from a minimum-wage part-time job, just would not do it any more.
I finally put the picket sign down, packed what I could into a couple of suitcases, bought a one-way bus ticket to my home in West Virginia, and left.
I went back to college and earned by bachelor’s degree so I could get on with my life.
There are, from my understanding, those today who still hold out hope of winning n although I am not sure what they expect to win.
PATCO still exists, although not as a legitimate union, but as a group of men and women, like me, who walked and lost their jobs.
In fact, they are holding a big get-together somewhere in Florida this week. At one point I even entertained thoughts of attending, but then realized I would get nothing out of it.
I have moved on. That part of my life is over, and I have so much more to look forward to today.
Those years I worked as a controller, nearly 10, in the Air Force and with the federal government, are a part of who I am today. They were good years for the most part, and I enjoyed the job immensely.
I am glad I had the opportunity to work as a controller and have the memories of those experiences. But it’s over now.
I have been fortunate in that I have discovered a second career that I love, and I am doing it today.
And if anybody wants to talk union, or think about any kind of strike, take it somewhere else. I’ve had enough.
Grant is the managing editor of the Suffolk News-Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 934-9603.