The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current labor contract proposal is so bad that 16 of the 28 air traffic controllers working at T.F. Green Airport may retire, warns Jake Crowley, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s (NATCA) Rhode Island spokesman. Nationwide, 3000 of the 14,000 controllers may retire, says NATCA, causing potential airport delays and safety problems.
FAA spokesman Geoff Basye, however, calls these claims “propaganda” and “scare tactics.” Many controllers are due to retire, Basye says, because they are approaching the mandatory retirement age of 56, having been hired in 1981 after President Ronald Reagan fired most controllers for striking.
T.F. Green’s controllers also want US Senator Lincoln Chafee to support a change in federal law to strengthen their bargaining position. Rhode Island’s other federal officials, Senator Jack Reed and US Representatives James Langevin and Patrick J. Kennedy, have endorsed union-backed legislation that would empower an impartial arbitrator to resolve contracts disputes. Chafee, though, has yet to take a stand on the bill, which is backed by 30 US senators and 182 members of the House of Representatives. The FAA opposes the legislation.
Under current law, if the union does not ratify the FAA’s final offer, it becomes effective in 60 days, unless Congress alters the pact. On April 5, after nine months of negotiations, the FAA submitted its final offer to Congress without union approval. So far, Congress has not altered it.
The key disagreement, according to Basye, is wages for new hires. The FAA proposes to reduce by 30 percent total annual compensation, a figure that includes salary, pension, health insurance, and all other benefits, to $127,600. The base salary of a new employee would start at $32,000, Basye says, and increase to $84,200 after five years. The FAA spokesman calls the amount ample for a job that requires only a high school diploma, especially when pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics are taking huge pay cuts. But Crowley, a Green controller for 24 years, says the proposed two-tier wage system would divide workers on a stressful job that requires teamwork.
A lower pay scale for new hires, Crowley says, would also pressure experienced controllers like him to retire, because those with salaries above the scale would not receive cost-of-living raises. “Absolutely false,” counters Basye. The average controller’s salary would rise from $128,500 to $139,900 over five years, he says. That’s a lot less than the 75 percent increase received by controllers under the last contract — negotiated in 1998 by the Clinton administration — but still fair, says Basye.
Two parts of the FAA proposal would reduce wages for some current controllers. The first would eliminate the 10 percent premium received by controllers when they temporarily replace a supervisor. That provision could cost controllers at small- and medium-sized airports like Green about $2500 a year, according to the union’s Web site. The second would eliminate extra compensation controllers receive for living in large cities, an annual hit of about $14,000 for controllers at large airports. Basye says eliminating these two premiums would save the FAA $41 million a year.