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Operations Management Questions and Answers

The 1981 Air Traffic Controllers Strike


Union negotiators may find that the authority limits they are authorized to use in a labor negotiation by their union members (constituency) can be both to their advantage as well as their disadvantage. One tactical advantage in using their constituency authority can include the ability to manipulate public visibility to what is transpiring behind closed doors to gain sympathy. By bringing out the issues into the public forum, they may be able to manipulate public support for their plight.

Another advantage might be gained in the limiting of concessions by conducting the negotiation in front of their members or constituency. By doing so, the negotiators show that their authority has limitations and that they have only so much latitude. A union negotiator might illustrate their solidarity with the union constituency by displaying a certain degree of militancy in union demands and expectations. The disadvantage can occur when the labor representative exceeds their authority. They might find they are caught in a squeeze by agreeing to a tentative proposal behind closed doors. Afterward, when the union member constituency votes against to ratify the proposed agreement, the union negotiator suddenly finds their credibility with their constituency to be under-minded by the result. The rejection of a proposed agreement is not that dissimilar to a non-confidence vote. Union negotiators must sometimes walk a fine line and be careful not to exceed their authority. Sometimes, the militancy employed by the union negotiators takes on an extreme that causes harm not only to themselves but also to their constituency.

The Case:

In 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization union (PATCO) went on strike against the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the United States. Effectively, every aircraft controller governed by the federal agency had walked off the job. Previously, the union leader representative, Robert Poli had spent several months attempting to negotiate a new labor-management contract with the FAA. A tentative agreement was reached that was then presented to the union members to vote on ratifying the proposal. The tentative contract was rejected by an overwhelming 90% percent of its members. Poli returned to the negotiating table to get a better package from the FAA. Relations had deteriorated significantly between the two negotiating parties. The FAA now dug in its heels and refused to offer any more concessions or improve the existing offer any further. After an additional two fruitless weeks of further talks between the two parties, Poli instructed PATCO to take strike action of its members against the FAA. Going on strike is normally fine in most circumstances, but here is where Poli exceeded his authority. The contract that had been signed previously with the FAA strictly prohibited a strike action and deemed that any such strike action as illegal. So, what happened? The FAA and the administration under President Ronald Regan implemented the following steps against Poli, and PATCO’s members:

  1. All striking controllers were immediately fired from their jobs.
  2. A federal injunction against the strike was obtained, and both the union and its leaders were fined several millions of dollars per day for violations
  3. Poli and some of the other union executive leaders were thrown into prison
  4. The union’s financial accounts were impounded
  5. All striking controllers were banned from any further employment with the U.S. government in any capacity whatsoever. It was not until 1993 that President Clinton pardoned the controllers and declared that they could now be re-hired. This was 12 years after the fact!

Answer all the questions; total carries 50 marks.

  1. Did the union use “fair” or “ethical” negotiation tactics? Explain.
  1. Was the government’s response to the strike fair and appropriate? Explain.
  1. Who was at fault in this negotiation breakdown and why?
  1. What do you think could have been done better by the PATCO? By the Government? (Consider communication, distributive vs. integrative bargaining, tactics, ethics, conflict resolution, etc.)

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