Without doubt the most popular forum at this year’s NZALPA Conference was a panel discussion with international Air Traffic Control (ATC) leadership colleagues from the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Kelvin Vercoe, NZALPA’s ATC Director, chaired the panel, where unions from the four countries came together to share experiences under the banner of the newly-formed Global ATC Alliance, and discuss the worker-employer collaboration journeys each organisation experiences, or not, with their respective employers. Topics included the worrying global ATC shortage, the difficult challenges of rapidly changing technologies such as managing drones, and remote control towers.
Critically, however, the benefits and challenges of building effective and authentic relationships with both members and employers, as well as key industry stakeholders was the focus of much discussion.
The Global Air Traffic Controllers Alliance was founded by a coalition of like-minded labour unions representing aviation safety professionals from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States (US). The Alliance is guided by global solidarity and unity and establishes a collective voice to speak on a range of subjects that have a common effect on the profession and the professionals the member unions represent. The Alliance is an agile organisation that is able to respond quickly and effectively to their mutual challenges.
Peter Duffey, President of the Canadian Air Traffic Controller Association (CATCA), along with US National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA)’s President Paul Rinaldi and Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert, were recognised within the Alliance for having possibly the best union relationships with their employers NAV Canada and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But, as the Conference learned, the move from grievance to collaboration between union and employer was hard won and took up to two decades to develop.
For NATCA under the Obama presidency, a battered but determined union emerged from the Bush administration, and was relieved to be part of the new President’s “First 100 day priority plan.” Union and employer were able to build a true collaboration that lasts to this day, despite the ill-conceived lockout under the Trump administration earlier this year. Trish Gilbert was clear, however, that it wasn’t easy to achieve a real working relationship and it took considerable time to build the necessary trust and respect on both sides.
In both the Canadian and US experience, there were members and management at the negotiating table who still wanted to keep fighting - but the collaboration road was “being built” through perseverance. In time it became apparent that this was more rewarding for all than the previous grievance-based approach.
For NATCA, whose members continued to work through the government shutdown, or furlough, of earlier this year under the Trump administration, this collaboration was greatly tested but together they got through what Trish Gilbert described as “very hard times”, including it taking several months for staff to receive all their pay owed. The result now is that NATCA has been invited to the White House and is in regular contact with many government agencies and elected representatives such as the Secretary of Transportation, as part of working effectively together to best serve the travelling public.
Twenty years ago in Canada, Peter Duffey also described management “at war” with the union. Now with the hard-won collaborative approach, it means they get “business done” much more quickly and with considerably lower levels of grievances. This has produced “what are now some of the best collective employment conditions and agreements members have ever seen,” said Duffey.
Such is the effectiveness of these collaborations, North American panel members described management representatives at their own union conferences receiving standing ovations by union members, and both sides’ equivalents talking frequently, with some considered friends. In both North American situations, the result was described as authentic ‘win-win’ situations which prove to be better for the safety and progression of the wider aviation industry.
All of the panel were adamant that they didn’t want to go backwards at the mercy of the political ‘pendulum’ depending on the election cycle. The unions were focussed on making sure that whoever the party was in power, that it shouldn’t affect the strength of strong collaborative relationships.
This ‘investment’, particularly for both North American unions, has meant that negotiations produce better outcomes, grievances have reduced dramatically and there are more positive and workable relationships not just across industry, but with government agencies, manufacturers and other unions. Again, this was demonstrated through the US furlough period when NATCA benefited from those third party advocates in and out of government, meaning morale was kept up and union members were better able to “weather the storm” through also having their needs championed by other influential groups.
The global response from other unions was also highly appreciated, Trish Gilbert told the New Zealand Herald in an interview later that day. From the very first message of support and solidarity from NZALPA’s Kelvin Vercoe, NATCA members were overwhelmed by the heart-felt support “…and the pizzas” that were arriving from unions and colleagues across the Pacific and around the world.
Meanwhile, for ATC counterparts across the Tasman, Civil Air’s Tom McRoberts said that they were a long way from the type of relationship the North Americans have. He likened it to what he knew of the relationship the New Zealand ATCs have with their employer Airways New Zealand. The positive influence the Global Alliance could have was important for Civil Air, especially as they are further away from a collaborative union-employer relationship than they have ever been. McRoberts described it as more like a teenager with parents telling them what to do. Civil Air are willing to make real and genuine efforts towards collaboration, but there are many hurdles to overcome for this to progress as a joint effort with their employer Air Services Australia.
For NZALPA, ATC comment was made that while the relationship and engagement with employer Airways is at a low point, the intention was to together reach something akin to the relationship standard set in North America.
All panel members referred to the challenge of member and management ‘outliers’ whose presence needed to be addressed and strategies developed to change their stance or lessen their influence. Regardless of these outliers, the organisation needed to work towards what they referred to as ‘moulding consent’ – but this really did take time and a lot of resources.
Trish Gilbert said effective communications with members was a top priority to achieve this – “building it brick by brick, and clear communications with members so there is an understanding why sometimes the union has to take unpopular stances. There needs to be trust that union leaders are doing things for the right reasons. It will always be a fact that you will never please all participants all the time.”
The Canadians said that it took a number of years to change the landscape, but if you clearly lead and are transparent about the union’s direction you will get a mainly supportive membership – it can be a hard battle to change the landscape within and outside the membership but it was very worthwhile once you got there.
Finally, to be successful, it was clear both organisations need to be clear about what will be common goals straight away, and what is going to need time to develop, but should appreciate and celebrate achievements as they happen while taking the time and effort to make it happen.