I REMEMBER WORKING WITH MARINE, ARMY HELICOPTER PILOTS, SPECIAL FORCES, 101st AIRBORNE & FORMER AIR FORCE AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS
I am a Vietnam Veteran and was honorably discharged in 1970. My plan was to join the Air Force and become an air traffic controller, a skill that I could transfer into the civilian world after service. But that was not in the cards. So in a way, I found myself facing the same dilemma 4 years later. I asked myself, “So what are you going to do with yourself?” However, I had added a few tricks to my imaginary “Bag of Tricks” that I would carry around with myself for the rest of my life. And at an opportune moment, pull one of these “tricks” out of my bag and save the day or the moment as necessary. I decided to become a heavy equipment operator.
Long story short an earth moving company, “Florida Fill”, hired me as a “truck spotter”. I showed up every day and they put me in Local 487 of The International Union of Operating Engineers as an oiler. Next thing you know, I’m operating a Caterpillar 944, front end loader, loading dump trucks all over South Florida. I’m making good money and I enjoyed the work. But I had an itch I just couldn’t scratch. I found out that the FAA was having a “Big Hire” for air traffic controllers, and if you scored high enough on the aptitude test, you got hired. I did just that at a general aviation airport 6 nautical miles North of Miami International. Opa-Locka airport, at the time in 1976, was the busiest general aviation airport on the East Coast.
My wife and I were not really happy living in South Florida so, with a little bit of difficulty I worked my way to LaGuardia airport in 1980. I planned on spending the rest of my career there. However there were storm clouds on the horizon and they were getting darker and darker. Relations between management and the work force had been deteriorating for many years and the union, of which I was a member was getting weary of being stonewalled by an ever increasing belligerent management. Grievance after grievance would be ignored for years, and benefits would be arbitrarily taken away, without explanation. Knowing we were forbidden by law, management would taunt us, “what are you going to do about it? Go on strike?”
Personally I really didn’t want anything to do with this turmoil, but it became unavoidable and on August 3, 1981 starting at 7 AM on the East Coast, we pulled the pin, threw our fate to the wind and went on strike! A few hours later President Ronald Reagan issued an ultimatum. “If they do not report to work within 48 hours they will have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated”. Many of us including myself were Veterans. I remember working with Marine and Army helicopter pilots, Special Forces, infantrymen, 101st Airborne and many former air force air traffic controllers who did what I had planned to. We were no strangers to adversity. Two days later, in Alexandria, Virginia the president of a PATCO local, Steve Wallaert was led away from a federal courthouse in leg irons, handcuffs and waist restraints and sentenced to 60 days in jail! It was getting scary. I had worked with Steve when I was in Florida, like most of us he was a decent guy. The Federal Government would selectively single out 77 other controllers throughout the country and press charges against them as well, some did jail time.
This happening on the heels of a letter from then candidate Reagan to our national president. Robert Poli. “You can rest assured that if I am elected President, I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety”. “I pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the president and the air traffic controllers. Such harmony can and must exist if we are to restore the people’s confidence in their government”. Our union even endorsed him!
This being an election year you can understand my skepticism of any campaign promises made by anyone running for public office. Wednesday, August 3, 2016 marks 35 years ago I walked off my job at LaGuardia Tower. You might say “C’mon, Jimmy, get over it”. I wish I could. On August 13, 1993 President William Jefferson Clinton stirred the pot. “In a gesture meant to signify the end of 12 years hostility between government and organized labor, President Clinton lifted the lifetime ban on hiring air traffic controllers fired by the Reagan Administration”. I’m 46 years old, I needed 8 more years to be eligible for my pension. I can’t believe it! I go through a lengthy re-application process, months go by, then I received the “Notice of Eligibility” informing me I’m on a list for re-employment as an air traffic controller. More dirty pool. The FAA drags its feet, sporadically hires, helter-skelter only a few hundred former air traffic controllers off of a list of 5,000. Fast forward now to Summer 2016. I’m now on two lists! McCollum V. LaHood EEOC docket No. 310–2004-00322X. A Class action Law suit was initiated by former controllers against The Federal Aviation Administration for Age Discrimination. Initiated in 2004 the Agency has pursued a tactic of attrition, delaying the legal process at every possible turn as we age and die off. I wish that I was making this all up, but I’m not. It’s now in the hands of an EEOC, Administrative Law Judge, Angelina Cuadra in Dallas, Texas, who has scheduled a 3 week hearing beginning January 16, 2017.
So what really was accomplished 35 years ago? Has the safety of the flying public improved? Apparently not. Has the air traffic control system or morale improved? The replacement workers, replaced PATCO with NATCA, another “Association”, forbidden by law to strike. It was business as usual. However, 15,000 families were financially destroyed and the fear established by the use of replacement workers is alive and well to this day. Boeing Aircraft in 2014, successfully coerced 30,000 members of the IAM Union to give up their defined pension benefit plan in the last contract or Boeing would close the plant and build elsewhere. In a bitter vote, the contract passed 51% to 49%.
So, 35 years later, coinciding with my birthday this year and the 35th year since the strike, what do I do? I drive out to Republic Airport in Farmingdale, Long Island, rent a Cessna 172, Skyhawk, in which I am checked out in, with an instructor and take to the skies. I had worked at this Tower in 1980, just before I transferred to LaGuardia. I will never lose my passion for aviation no matter what the circumstances. I’ve flown them, jumped out of them and controlled them.
Even if it was only for just an hour, it was nice to reminisce.
~ Jim Markson, Vietnam Veteran USAF, author of Vietnam and Beyond