Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Heartfelt Letter

I received a heartfelt e-mail from Ben Coons this week.  Ben worked as an air traffic controller at the Minneapolis ARTCC (Minneapolis Center), one of the biggest air traffic control facilities in the Midwest from 1970 to August 3, 1981, when he went out on strike.  To the left is a copy of his PATCO membership card.  Ben was a former president of PATCO Local 305.   Like a number of people I interviewed, he had doubts about the strike strategy, but he respected the picket line.  He also had doubts about PATCO's leadership, but he had no doubt that the built up frustration of the union's rank and file led to the strike.  "My biggest regret with the strike is what it has done to labor and the middle class," he wrote. "I firmly believe the transfer of wealth to the upper class and the loss of the middle class started with the PATCO strike in 1981.  At this point in time I'm not sure if anything can reverse the trend without a full scale labor push back."
       The people like Ben whom I interviewed for this book made a big impression on me.  They were people who were not the most outspoken advocates of a strike, people who believed that Reagan's Rose Garden speech on the morning the strike began made it unwinnable, but who nonetheless would not go back to work unless everyone went back.  They were prepared to put their careers on the line in an effort to protect their colleagues in the belief that all would stand a better chance of going back if they stuck together.  No matter what one's opinion of the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike, it's hard not to have some admiration for folks like Ben.  It seems to me that these are the kinds of people we'd want working together, watching each other's backs to keep the air traffic control system safe.  

Here is most of his letter to me in which he refers to John Leyden, president of PATCO 1970-80, Robert Poli, president of PATCO 1980-81, who took the reins of the union from Leyden, to his own experience preparing colleagues for the strike, and to his frustrations with his old employer, the Federal Aviation Administration: 

Professor McCartin,

When I learned of your book via the PATCO web site I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read it.  I haven’t been to any of the many August 3rd reunions and I haven’t kept touch with many of my old colleagues.  Shortly after the strike I was somewhat embarrassed in not being able to explain adequately why we struck and how disastrous the outcome.  

My personal feelings revolved around the resignation of John Leyden and Poli taking over the reins of PATCO.  I had great respect for Leyden and almost none for Poli. When the “coup” took place in Chicago this for me was a turning point in the union and when that train left the station in Chicago in early 1980 our fate went with it.

You quoted a term in your book that was something Leyden used often, i.e., “responsible militancy”.  Poli was simply not responsible and after the “coup” the saber rattling began in full swing.  The battle cry was “I will lead you into war and bring you out victoriously”!  During 1980 and until the strike on August 3rd the rank and file was in no mood to do anything other than draw blood.  For those of us that were more pragmatic and a little less militant we were faced with a lose lose proposition.  I could not have crossed a picket line; however I believed the PATCO leadership was bent on a suicide mission.  When President Reagan came into the Rose Garden on August 3rd ordering us back to work I couldn’t help but think about Monday Night Football and “Dandy Don” Meredith singing “Turn out the lights the party’s over”.  I knew at that moment we had lost.

When I was making the “rounds” to the towers in Wisconsin, and Michigan [before the strike] I would begin my speech with “If you are not absolutely scared to death at the end of my presentation then you haven’t been listening”!  I would continue with you are discussing striking against the United States Government.  These are the guys that print the money and make the laws.

The only questions I would get after the presentation was, “How long do you think this will last”?  I would answer with “A strike is forever, anything less is a win”!  The controllers that I briefed were never scared.  They simply wanted to go after the FAA at whatever the cost.  The rank and file never was prepared monetarily or otherwise and believed we would bring the FAA to its knees.  I would add that the bulk of PATCO members would not be talked out of a job action.

One of my only disappointments with your book was that you didn’t spend much time talking about the smaller facilities.  I was a GS-14 step 7 at Minneapolis Center.  I was making @ $45K in 1981.  During a trip to Oshkosh Wisconsin tower as Choirboy [one of the union's field organizers], I will never forget one of the controller’s wives that spoke up during my presentation.  (I always encouraged wives to attend the meetings).  After I had given my “print the money spiel” she remarked that her husband was a GS-9 and the janitors at OshKosh B’Gosh across the tarmac made more than her husband.  She went on to say they had to file for fuel oil assistance from the City the winter before.  She was militant to the point that if the strike didn’t work her husband was going to quit anyway.  These small towers were really the one’s suffering.  Other duties as assigned to some tower chiefs meant cleaning the windows on the tower cabs and mowing the lawn.  I couldn’t believe some of the things I was told.

The bigger facilities had other problems; however, in my opinion it wasn’t money. 

 I was very proud of my profession and thought I did it well.  In that I was a pilot I ended up being involved in several flight assists.  Noted at the left are two incidents that occurred in 1976 on Christmas Day.  There were actually three, all on Christmas day, however, one was minor and didn’t get reported.

The second assist noted on my evaluation report is just one sentence.  “Again on December 25, 1976 an IFR aircraft under Mr. Coons control lost his engine and crashed” What the report doesn’t say is the pilot of the Beech Bonanza declared a “mayday” and ask for radar vectors to the nearest airport.  I identified the closest runway and started him on a heading.  I knew he wouldn’t make the runway and that I would lose radio contact with him when he got lower so I asked the captain of a DC-9 to go over to the area and help me with communications if I lost radio contact.  The DC-9 did immediately turn around and I gave him a heading for the Bonanza that was going down.  At the same time I had my assistant call Traverse City tower and see if they were working any Coast Guard aircraft.  They were and I had them send a helicopter over to my frequency and when he arrived I gave him radar vectors to what was now a crash site.  The pilot and passengers survived the crash however there were some broken bones etc.  The FAA that I know and love gave the Captain of the DC-9  a letter thanking him for assisting and to me a reprimand for not going through “search and rescue” with the Coast Guard helicopter that assisted.  Typical of the FAA!
My biggest regret with the strike is what it has done to labor and the middle class.  I firmly believe the transfer of wealth to the upper class and the loss of the middle class started with the PATCO strike in 1981.  At this point in time I’m not sure if anything can reverse the trend without a full scale labor push back.

Although there was some pain in reading your book, I thank you for doing it.  Your story is worth handing to my son and friends.  Maybe they will see how badly the FAA managed their most precious resource, i.e. their people!


Ben Coons

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