Labor board rulings highlight FAA-union tensions

The Federal Labor Relations Authority issued two decisions Monday on the fractious contract disputes between the Federal Aviation Administration and its unions. Those feuds may play a central role in FAA reauthorization this fall, as congressional Democrats have signaled their desire to reshape the agency's bargaining authority.

In the first decision, the FLRA rejected an unfair labor practices complaint filed by the FAA against Professional Airways Systems Specialists, which represents safety and technical workers. The union took the FAA's March 2006 contract offer to members for consideration, but recommended that they vote not to approve it. In an August 2006 vote, 98 percent of PASS members rejected the offer.

The FAA charged that PASS had acted in bad faith by not supporting the contract proposal. PASS countered that its members ought to be allowed to ratify the contract that would govern their salaries and work rules.

If negotiations with unions reach an impasse, the FAA can take disputes to Congress for resolution rather than submitting them for mediation. If Congress does not act within 60 days, the FAA is free to impose its final offer on the union.

The FLRA concluded that because an impasse would likely mean imposition of the FAA's contract, PASS' decision to put the proposal up for ratification and to call for a return to negotiations was justified.

"I do not consider it a coincidence that in the bargaining environment of the case . . . one of its unions has sought to resort to a form of force," Richard Pearson, an FLRA administrative law judge, wrote in his decision. "The FAA may be correct in its interpretation of [its right to impose a contract], but such an interpretation invited a response by the union, and the union's response in this case appears to me to be entirely lawful."

Tom Brantley, national president of PASS, hailed the decision and said he looked forward to reopening contract talks, but he had not heard from the FAA yet.

"It's clear they're not in favor with Congress these days, and I'm sure they're concerned with how they handle it, because if they took the wrong action, it could very well backfire and create a firestorm that they don't really want," Brantley said. "It's kind of a mixed bag. If they did something extreme, it would be something we don't want to have to deal with, but it may well be a catalyst to generate immediate action by Congress."

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency was still reviewing the decision.

Both the House and Senate FAA reauthorization bills include provisions that would give the agency's unions the right to go to binding arbitration if contract talks failed. The House version would overturn the pay and work rules the FAA imposed on the National Air Traffic Controllers Association last September.

Those pay and work rules are the subject of the second FLRA ruling, this one by the San Francisco regional office of the panel. NATCA filed an unfair labor practice charge against the FAA, citing the agency's declaration of impasse and imposition of its contract offer without going to arbitration. The San Francisco regional director dismissed the charges.

"This decision validates our new contract, which is saving taxpayers $1.9 billion over five years and providing the resources we need to invest in 21st century air traffic systems," FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said in a statement Monday.

The FAA's statement also said the "decision affirms that the FAA followed the process enacted by Congress for resolving bargaining impasses over changes to the agency's personnel system."

NATCA President Pat Forrey disagreed, and said the union will appeal the decision and ask the FLRA board to set a definitive precedent as it did in the PASS case. The substance of the PASS case may not apply to NATCA's appeal because NATCA's contract talks reached an impasse, while PASS' did not. The decision in the PASS case upheld the legality of the union's actions, but did not address the legality of the FAA's negotiating authority.

In any case, the FLRA process may be less about setting precedent than about spotlighting the FAA's contract issues for Congress when debate over FAA reauthorization begins in the fall.

"The FAA's [statement that the FLRA decision vindicated them] is at best factually inaccurate and [at] worst, intentionally misleading," Forrey said in a statement. "The FAA is trying desperately to justify its practices, but the truth is that even a large majority of Congress disagrees with the agency."

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