Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The FAA Explains Air Traffic Control (1963)

This public relations video produced in 1963 by the Federal Aviation Agency (the predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration) gives a sense of how air traffic control worked in the years when air traffic controllers first began to organize.  The visuals here say a lot about FAA culture, the homogeneous composition of the controller workforce, and the the way technology worked in those days.  While the video might seem hokey in some ways when looked at from today's perspective, it evinces a level of respect for the vital role that federal workers play in the nation's life that seems all to absent from today's public discourse.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mike Rock Tells the Story of PATCO's Origins

This week will mark the 31st anniversary of the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike.  With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to post an interesting bit of historical memorabilia.   This is a video of PATCO co-founder Mike Rock taken on January 10, 1979, as he told the story of the origins of the air traffic controllers' union, recounting the working conditions controllers faced in the 1960s and the long struggle that led them to decide to form their own organization.  The film was made at the AFL-CIO's training center in Silver Spring, Maryland, as Rock spoke to PATCO activists who were beginning the union's preparations for the 1981 contract expiration.  The quality of the video isn't the greatest.  It was preserved and copied several times by Mike's friend, and PATCO legend Jack Maher (who passes briefly across the screen in the videos opening moment).  But Jack gave it to me with the hope that it would help explain why he and Mike and their colleagues began organizing in the first place.  This is the opening excerpt of a several hours worth of history that Rock shared with his PATCO colleagues in 1979.  I cut off this segment just before Rock recounted PATCO's founding.  I'll be posting more of the Rock lectures once I edit them.  Enjoy:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Calling Bob Poli

Occasionally I get a letter from a former PATCO member who inquires about Bob Poli, who led the union during the 1981 strikeI was not able to interview Bob Poli for my book.  The letters I sent to the addresses I had for him were not answered and those who offered to contact him on my behalf were unable to put us together.  He has tended to guard his privacy in recent years: he did not come to the two PATCO reunions I attended.   (Poli's son, Robert P. Poli, did drop in to meet me after the book was published, however, and I signed a copy for him.)  I heard recently from Larry Sawatzki, of Kansas City, who told me that he wanted to reach out to Poli.  His letter and its postscript is representative of many that I've gotten from strikers.  I'll reprint his letter below with his permission

Dear Professor McCartin,

My name is Larry Sawatzki.  I was a member of PATCO Local 332, MCI TRACON, Kansas City, MO.  I was hired by the FAA in 1973 after four years in the Navy.  I was an active member of the union, serving as facility rep in Kansas City, as well as terminal voting representative for the central region at the last two PATCO conventions.  I was a friend of Jack Maher, Mike Rock, and Gary Eads, as well as many others you mentioned in your book.  I was with Bob Poli in the lobby of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel on election night 1980.  When the national news networks projected Reagan as the winner we, along with numerous colleagues, proceeded to celebrate.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Fathers and Sons

I've now talked to a fair number of controllers whose fathers or sons were also controllers.  Their stories never fail to interest me for inevitably they are stories of passion--passion in their relationships (sometimes marked by conflict), in their attachment to the work they did as controllers, and in their feelings about what happened to them and their families.  (Pictured to the left is a PATCO striker and son, 1981.)  This week I've heard from another strike veteran, Pat Garrett, who wrote to tell me his story about being fired and about his dad, who was also a controller, and who, as Pat explains, embodied the passion to which I refer.  I post Pat's letter now in the spirit of Father's Day. 

Dear Mr. McCartin,
I just read Collision Course.  Thank you, for a well written and researched  book.  It provided new details of the union and the strike and brought back a flood of memories, emotions and some responses. I am a fired PATCO member from Santa Barbara, CA and the son of an air traffic controller of 25 years. He retired just before the strike.

Beginning at age 25 I worked as a controller for almost three years with prior experience in retail and a BA degree in geography.  My Dad encouraged me to accept the job. I hesitated because of his negative stories as a controller.  He emphasized that I'd really like the work but may have difficulty

Friday, May 18, 2012

Collision Course wins Richard A. Lester Award

On May 17, it was announced that Collision Course won the Richard A. Lester Award for Outstanding Book in Industrial Relations and Labor Economics published in 2011.  The award is presented by the faculty of the Princeton University Industrial Relations Section to "the book making the most original and important contribution toward understanding the problems of industrial relations, labor market policies, and the evolution of labor markets."  A full explanation of the award can be found here.
   The best thing about the award is that it might induce economists and industrial relations scholars to read the book.  It seems to me that we historians don't tend to read enough work in those fields, and in turn economists (the IRS faculty excepted!) don't tend to read enough history.  So my thanks to the Princeton IRS faculty for promoting this cross-over. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day, the Fate of Strikes, and the Relevance of Collision Course

The Sunday, April 29, edition of MSNBC's talk show, "Up with Chris Hayes," aired a fascinating discussion on the fate of the strike over the past 30 years and the future of workers' collective action.  The discussion hosted by Chris Hayes included long-time trade union intellectual and activist, Bill Fletcher Jr., president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, Congressmen Jerry Nadler, and Marina Sitrin, of the Occupy Wall Street Legal Working Group.  The context for the discussion was the call for a May Day general strike by Occupy Wall Street organizers, but the discussion quickly turned to a broad consideration of American workers' loss of the power to strike effectively.  In that discussion Bill Fletcher Jr. strongly recommended Collision Course for clarifying how we got to where we are today.   Check out that discussion here.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Challenge from Dean Fields

I received an e-mail over the weekend from Dean Fields, who worked the Terminal Radar Control at LaGuardia in New York City in 1968 when Mike Rock, who then also worked there, began organizing PATCO's first meetings.  Dean wondered if I or someone else would write a follow-up book, focusing specifically on the experiences of rank-and-file controllers, whose stories he does not want to pass away unrecorded.  Here's what he said: 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The 42nd Anniversary of the "Easter Rebellion"

Forty-two years ago today, on March 25, 1970, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) launched a nation-wide sickout to protest an effort by the Federal Aviation Administration to forcibly transfer PATCO's leaders at the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, airport.  The move was an effort by the FAA to weaken PATCO in the south.  This job action came hard on the heels of the 1970 postal workers' wildcat strike, and caused great controversy.  More than 3,000 controllers took part in the job action, which was illegal.  Most were suspended and docked pay, and some lost their jobs temporarily (until a secret back room deal between labor and the Nixon administration brought about their rehiring).  Those who took part in the sickout/strike were known as "horses" and proudly wore this pin on the anniversary of their job action in the years thereafter (photo courtesy of Ron Taylor).   
      The "Easter Rebellion," as many controllers called it given that it spilled into that holiday, in many ways completed PATCO's transformation into a union.  In some ways it also set the stage for PATCO's later miscalculation, fostering the belief that Reagan's administration too would cut a backroom deal rather than fire everyone who walked out on August 3, 1981.  Today is a day to remember how a poorly designed federal labor relations system courted trouble in one of the nation's most important agencies, increasing the likelihood of a disastrous national strike the legacy of which still lingers. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

One Former Controller's Story

This week I heard from Steve Pohowsky, a former member of PATCO local 262 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport in Pennsylvania who lost his job for striking in 1981.  He is pictured at left with fellow striker Mike Duvall.  Steve's story is particularly interesting because he had been on the job for less than a year when he struck.  As he told me, he "spent more time with the other controllers on the picket line than I did in the tower."
   Here is what he wrote to me about his story:
Thank you so much for writing an absolutely wonderful book on the Air Traffic Controller strike of 1981.  I had always hoped that someone would write a fair book about this watershed event in labor history.  I was one of the controllers fired by the President.  Reading your book brought back many of the emotions I felt during that time period.   I’ll admit my eyes went misty reading the last two chapters because I lived through all you wrote.  I related to all the former controllers you mentioned.  This was part of my past I tried to bury.  Thank you for reminding me where some of my current independence and strong will came from.
        I joined the FAA at age 25 in September 1980 after 4 years as a air controller in the Air Force.  I finished 2nd in my class at the FAA Academy and was placed at the

Sunday, February 26, 2012

When the Sit-Down Heroes Stood With PATCO

Only a handful of strikes in the twentieth century helped change the course of American labor history.  For reasons I explain in my book, I think the air traffic controllers' strike of 1981 was one of those.  Most historians would agree that the 1936-37 sit-down strike by autoworkers in Flint, Michigan, was another.  On December 30, 1936, autoworkers stopped the assembly line at General Motors' Fisher #1 body plant in Flint, and instead of leaving the plant to picket outside they occupied it.  They stayed in the plant for 44 days, repelling an effort by the Flint police to evict them on January 11, 1937, holding fast until GM signed an agreement recognizing their union on February 11, 1937.  Their victory propelled the success of the United Auto Workers union and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and helped facilitate the organization of millions of industrial workers in the years thereafter.
     In August 1981, survivors of the Flint sit-down strike realized that they might be witnessing another turning point in labor history and they rallied to the defense of the striking air traffic controllers of PATCO.  This week I heard from James Spalding, who was president of PATCO Local 375 at Bishop International Airport in Flint, and Choirboy in charge of strike organizing in the mid-Michigan cluster that also included Lansing, Saginaw, and Jackson.  Jim recounted his memories of the day that the sit-down strike heroes picketed alongside PATCO members outside Bishop Airport, an event captured in the picture above sent to me by Jim.  Here's a portion of what Jim said:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

How Air Traffic Control Worked on the Eve of the 1981 Strike

Thanks to a post by Pat Vaughan, I've learned of set of videos that do a wonderful job of explaining something that was challenging to get across through mere prose in my book: how air traffic control worked on the eve of the 1981 strike.   These videos are from a story for the Sunday Magazine show on WKYC broadcast less than a year before the strike.  Reporter Tom Haley journeyed to the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Oberlin, Ohio, where he was given a tour by controller Dan Smith.  Al Roker, then early in his broadcasting career, does the lead-in.  The video comes in two parts.  Enjoy. 

Part I:

And Part II:

Saturday, February 4, 2012

From PATCO's story to 9/11

This week I heard from former controller Mahlon (Mal) Fuller.  He joined the FAA in 1968 and worked at Philadelphia, where he participated in the 1970 sickout and helped to lead the local before moving to Pittsburgh and up into management years before the strike.  Mal wrote to say that he thought the book accurately reflected the history he lived through, and that it captured the personalities of the people he knew, like Mike Rock and Jack Maher.  He also sent me a link to his review of the book on Amazon.  
    I was stunned to learn from Mal that he was working on the morning of September 11, 2001, as the watch supervisor of the Pittsburgh tower and radar room.  His experience that day was harrowing.  He first learned that something was wrong when a controller walked into the Pittsburgh radar room to say that the news on the television in the break room was reporting that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.  When he went to the break room to investigate, he saw the second plane hit.  He knew then that this was no accident.  Over the next three hours he and his team played a role of one of the most remarkable events in aviation history, clearing the air of all non-military air traffic.  But there was one plane that his team could not get to respond as it flew directly over Pittsburgh airport toward Washington, DC: the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93.  You can listen to Mal talk about his experiences that day and about the heroic passengers of Flight 93 who stormed the cockpit and prevented terrorists from reaching their intended target in a radio interview that aired last fall by clicking here.
    Mal writes, “As I look back over my career I wonder if I was unknowingly being trained for 9/11 through my association with many of the PATCO men and women whom I knew and worked with and with some of the managers/supervisors who were PATCO members/sympathizers in the old days.”  It is a compelling thought.  And I’m sure there are other threads that connect PATCO’s story to other controllers and supervisors who stepped into the breach on that horrible day.  By the way, Mal has an inspirational talk that he gives on his 9/11 story.  You can find out more about that from the Lancaster County (PA) Speakers Bureau here.
    And there is a fascinating postscript to Mal's story that might interest the historians among you: it turns out that he is named after his grandfather, J. Mahlon Barnes, a cigar maker by trade and a trade unionist who went on to become active in the Socialist Party of America in the early twentieth century.  In fact, Mal's grandfather was an associate of Eugene V. Debs and he served for many years as the party's executive secretary.   Stories like Mal's make you realize just how connected everything is if you look hard enough for the connections.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Remembering Allegheny Flight 853

When I was at the Newberry Library in Chicago recently to talk about Collision Course, I had the good fortune of meeting David Sapadin, a controller who was fired from Cleveland Center in 1981 for participating in the strike, but who managed to get rehired using the appeals process of the Merit Systems Protection Board.  (As I point out in the book, only a very small select group of strikers were able to do this.)
   David is now retired from air traffic control.  But he continues to study its history.   He reminded me of an event that I did not write about in my book, but one that should not be forgotten.  It was the mid-air collision between Allegheny Airlines Flight 853 (a DC-9) and a single engine Piper PA-28 (tail number N7374J) over Indiana on September 9, 1969, resulting in 83 deaths.  (The debris field of this accident is pictured above.)  As a subsequent investigation showed, that event occurred in large part because the smaller plane failed to show up on controllers' radar.  This inadequate equipment was one of the chief concerns of the then recently-formed Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).   David Sapadin studied that accident while a student at Ohio State in 1970 prior to his hiring at the FAA.  You can read the interesting paper he wrote back then discussing this event.  It is called "The Nightmare -- The MidAir" and you can find it here.   My great thanks to David.  If you'd like to get in touch with him, he can be reached at: dmsapadin@yahoo.com

Monday, January 23, 2012

Some Unwanted Attention

Today the Washington Post reported an odd story regarding John Hinckley Jr., who is still incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for having attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan (and seriously wounding others including James Brady) outside the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981. 
    A court hearing was held today on whether Hinckley ought to remain incarcerated.  At the hearing, Secret Service agent Jason Clickner testified about what transpired when he followed Hinckley on October 16, on one of the periodic excursions Hinckley is granted from the hospital.  The agent reported that on this outing Hinckley entered a Barnes & Noble bookstore, went directly to the History section, and became fixated on a certain book he saw on the shelf there, the blue front cover of which featured a photo of President Reagan in its upper right corner.  Hinckley's fixation on the book gave the agent "goosebumps."  Read this bizarre story in full at this linkAnd for CNN's report on the affair click here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

50th Anniversary of Federal Sector Bargaining

Fifty years ago today, on January 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988.  That act helped change the course of American labor history by offering most federal workers the opportunity to form unions and bargain collectively for the first time.   At that point, few workers at any level of government had yet gotten their employers to accept collective bargaining.  Wisconsin, the first state to enact a state level law that gave goverment workers the right to bargain, had not done so until 1959.  Kennedy's action built on the Wisconsin precedent, and similar precedents set at the municipal level in New York City and Philadelphia.  Most states and localities had been reluctant to follow the example of these jurisdictions -- that is, until the federal government acted.  Although it applied only to federal workers, Kennedy's order helped break a log jam in states and localities around the country.  Soon more than half of the states followed Wisconsin's example, and city after city emulated New York and Philadelphia.  The largest wave of unionization in the postwar years--the organization of public sector workers--was suddenly underway.
    The Kennedy order has often been portrayed as a reward to organized labor, a quid pro quo offered by the president in return for labor's support in his narrow election victory over Richard M. Nixon in 1960.  As I show in Collision Course, this portrayal of the Kennedy order is filled with distortions.  In many ways the order fell far short of what the labor movement wanted (it did not give unions the right to bargain over wages and benefits, as some legislation being considered by the Congress would have done).  Indeed, labor's key negotiators felt sold out by the wording of the Kennedy order, which did not even mention "collective bargaining."  The defects of the order would create severe problems for one group of federal workers who tried to organize in the early 1960s, air traffic controllers.  The lack of strong protections in the order forced the controllers to become increasingly militant and to form their own independent union, PATCO, in an effort to surmount the problems they faced trying to get the government to listen to them.
     Its glaring defects notwithstanding, the Kennedy order still represented a huge advance over what preceded it.  And it is worth remembering on this anniversary.  Today in the Los Angeles Times I have an editorial considering the significance of this landmark event in U.S. labor history.  You can read my editorial in full here.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

PATCO Writers Respond

One of the most interesting parts of my research for this book was discovering the number of fired air traffic controllers who turned to writing to make sense of their experience.  I have learned a lot from these PATCO veterans.  Some wrote novels.  Others wrote memoirs.   Some penned screen plays.  Most of them were never published.  Indeed, most were never finished.  But for many PATCO families, strike veterans, and people curious about what happened in 1981, the memories preserved by these writings can be quite revealing.
     Recently, I heard from two PATCO veterans whose work I read as part of my research.  One of them was Terry Paddack whose novel, Crossing Runways, is pictured above and can be found on Amazon at this link. Terry wrote to say that he had enjoyed Collision Course.  And he shared the review he wrote of the book on Amazon.  "As a fired air traffic controller and PATCO striker, I found myself reliving the emotional and sometimes painful of memories and loss of the people who are no longer with us," he wrote.  I was happy to see Collision Course favorably reviewed in the New York Times, of course.  But the author of that review, Bryan Burrough, had no deep knowledge of air traffic controllers or labor, and certainly had not experienced this story the way Terry did.  So in many ways it is even more gratifying to receive a favorable review from Terry, who, as he said, "lived this story."  You can read his full review here.    
     Most of the PATCO veterans who did write about their experiences either never finished their projects or never brought them to publication.  Still, some of these unpublished works are enormously informative.  One of the best unpublished PATCO memoirs I read was a 428 page manuscript called "One Strike and You're Out," by Robert E. Lambrecht, who worked at Chicago Center.  Robert was the other PATCO writer I've heard from recently.  His own unpublished manuscript was detailed and revealing.  Among other things, it gave me one of the best accounts I found regarding how he and his generation of controllers learned to do the work.  Recently Robert wrote to say he enjoyed my book:  "If there was ever a book written which needs to be considered the 'Bible for Labor' and to be seriously read and understood by Non-management workers in America, it would be Collision Course in my humble opinion," he said.  I'm grateful for his endorsement (and for his encouragement over the years I worked on the book).  He sent a very thoughtful three-page statement on his own experience and reflection 30 years later.  It can be read in full at this link.
   I'm thankful that Terry and Robert took the time to write and I'm very pleased to recommend them and their writing to anyone who wants to learn more about what it was like to live the history I wrote about.