Saturday, May 12, 2012

Union Culture Run Amok

By Annoyed With Things

This is not an anti-union rant.  I have career teamsters in my family and I wholeheartedly support organizations like the police and fire service unions.  But some unions, or at least some locals hiding behind national union rules, have lost their way and are developing a culture of complacency and fear at the expense of public safety, and that annoys me to no end! is reporting on a regional Air Traffic control center in NY where the union air traffic controllers have completely turned the tables on management and seemingly have been doing it for a long time (  By turn the tables, I mean sleeping on the job, failing to follow FAA procedure, using personal electronics instead of watching the radar scope; all while planes are in the air.  All of this is bad enough when you consider the potential cost of their lackadaisical attitude toward their job – keeping the flying public safe.  But that by itself is not what I want to focus on.  I spent a career in the military, so I know a lot about long, boring and uneventful watches.  And, its not like we never goofed off a little when nothing was going on. 
The fundamental difference between my goofing off and the controllers goofing off is what happened next.  In my case, I was either very informally corrected by a peer who might have said something like, “hey, dumbass get your head out of your butt and pay attention,” or words to that effect.  I also always ran the risk of getting caught by my boss and them the correction was a bit sharper.  If I was fooling around, I was disciplined (usually at a very low level but I got the message), If I made a mistake, I was corrected and provided a training refresher (again low level).  And, if I really screwed up or blatantly disregarded my duties (which I never did), I would have had my qualifications pulled and been in real trouble.  Not so in Ronkonkoma.
At ZNY or New York Center, responsible for one of the busiest air traffic corridors in the world, there was a lacks culture of essentially phoning it in during the slow time.  Which by the way leads to poor performance or deviation from standards during the busy times as noted during the FAA investigation.  Bad enough, but management, the people who are supposed to enforce the standards and ensure overall quality of work, were at best apathetic themselves or at worst intimidated and fearful for their personal safety.  Why, because there was a systemic culture of invulnerability by the union workforce, a “you can’t do nothing to me” attitude.  Over time, this seems to have morphed into a classic hostile workplace situation, with hazing, vandalism, intimidation and retribution the name of the game.  Go along to get along. 
So what does this really have to do with unions?  Where was the shop steward?  Why didn’t the union police itself?  From the article:
“We are concerned when we hear about rare examples that deviate from the high standards we set for ourselves and are determined to work with the FAA to correct any such issues,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in an e-mailed statement today. Safety is the top priority of the union, which represents about 15,000 controllers, and it’s working with the FAA to improve professional standards, Rinaldi said in the statement.“ NATCA condemns any behavior in the control facility that undermines that goal,” he said”
  – oh really.  So we are to believe the union leadership didn’t know anything about these ongoing problems.  Yet is seems everyone else know New York Center had a reputation.  It finally took the FAA to step in, after numerous complaints I might add – so no gold star for the FAA either, to lop off a few heads and clean house.

  It is the apparent unwillingness of unions to police their own that contribute to the bad rap unions get in general.  One of the hardest people to fire is a union civilian worker at a military command, even if they are incompetent, lazy or unsafe.  Short of someone getting killed, it takes about a year of reviews, retraining, opportunities to perform, mentoring and a ton of paperwork to can someone from a civilian federal union job.  So if the official system is hard, where is the informal system of checks and balances provided by the union itself like in my military story above?  Where are the mid-level union leaders who are supposed to care so much?  And it’s not just the air traffic controllers, try and get rid of a bad teacher.

Look, I think unions do serve some good purpose, but they are slitting their own collective throats if they don’t apply some reasonable standards of professional ethics to themselves.  Unions leaders across the country should us this example as an opportunity to conduct a self-review and tighten things up a bit, or run the risk of external review and much more drastic action by regulators.  Think of New York Center next time you take the red-eye back east.  Perhaps it is wiser to take the train, I don’t think that guy is asleep at the switch.

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