“It’s very hard to improve working conditions and very easy to lose hard fought gains.”
This is the message from departing Air Traffic Control Council member Mark (Spot) Wilson, who will hang up his Airways headphones in a few months and head off to retirement. Wilson has been a controller for 35 years, and an active union representative for more than 20 of those years.
In that time, he’s moved from employment with the Ministry of Transport to Airways; and changed union representation from the Public Service Association (PSA) to NZALPA. He’s also been very hands-on with many union projects in that time but is keen to downplay his involvement. Some of those projects have been so far-reaching and his involvement so significant that they cannot go without mention.
Air traffic controllers were originally covered by the PSA and the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA), which did all the groundwork and told the PSA what needed to happen.
When Airways was created as a State Owned Enterprise in 1987 and produced employment contracts for its staff, the PSA signed up to the new contracts despite advice from ATCA that the contracts were unacceptable. This led ATCA to start talking to NZALPA, which was looking to boost its membership numbers to meet minimum union membership requirements. Combining NZALPA’s 800-odd pilots and ATCAs 330 controllers meant NZALPA could meet the 1000 member threshold, and the deal was done in 1989. NZALPA became the only joint pilot and air traffic controller union.
“Initially it was a marriage of convenience, but has since developed into so much more” Mark says. “We wanted a union that would represent us. The PSA was quite large; a group of 330 air traffic controllers didn’t warrant their time and effort, so we were pushed to one side. By moving into NZALPA, the ATCA could become the ATC Council and we would be able to do all the background work and also do the negotiating. It has been particularly successful.”
Since then the ATC Council has rolled up its sleeves and got stuck into a huge range of projects – any one of which is quite daunting. Mark Wilson has been at the forefront of many of those projects.
He played an integral role in what was the Shore Working Party, which focussed on things identified as most needing attention, in the wake of the shift from a government department to a state-owned enterprise focusing on career progression and pay. The working party was chaired by the late Jack Shore, who was also an ATC. A committee looked at career progression and pay, but their efforts were rebuffed by Airways, which wanted to deal directly with controllers, rather than work through their union; this failed miserably.
“After this failure I spent two years with lots of paper and a calculator working out how we could introduce a new pay system. The outcome of all that was presented to the ATC Council. They gave it the tick-off and we negotiated a contract,” Mark says.
“It was a lot of work – in the days before computers were easily available,” he says. “We came up with a new way of paying air traffic controllers. Designing the new pay scheme was relatively easy, but the hard part was transferring people from the old scheme to the new one. That’s the bit that took significant work.”
Other areas of involvement around the same time included superannuation (there was nothing on offer for new controllers) and the Mutual Benefit Fund. Mark also spent time as a trustee and as Chairman of the Fund.
Mark was also involved in the negotiations to include a leave bank in the ATC contract in the early 1990s.
“Prior to that, everything was done in our own time.”
The next big project out of the blocks for Mark was the introduction of the roster specific salary component, or RSSC. This was designed to ensure ATCs received regularised pay.
“When 30 per cent or so of your salary is made up of penal rates, this can mean significant fluctuations each fortnight, depending on roster requirements. It can make it very hard for people to budget. Also when people went to the bank to get a mortgage, the bank wouldn’t accept penal rates as part of their income. We wanted to regularise pay without losing our penal rates. A bigger reason for change was that we also wanted penal rates to become superable.”
“Up until then the only money you could save for retirement was based on base pay, because most super schemes say penal rates are not superable. Rather than moving to a straight salary (which would be very hard with rosters changing in response to traffic levels) we came up with a formula where you take a roster, work out the average penal rates and then pay that as a percentage of base pay. When the roster changes, they go through and recalculate the RSSC.”
Mark’s involvement was pivotal in that project. Working out the system was challenging, getting it added to the Airways contracts was even more so because it came at a cost to Airways.
Vacancy bid system
He was also an integral part of the vacancy bid system, by which ATCs could swap jobs. This resulted in Airways moving away from a system where jobs were advertised, and Airways picked what they considered to be ‘the best person’ for the job.
“They picked the person they wanted but not necessarily the best person for the job. If you were a union guy you were not going to get promoted,” Mark says.
“We looked at the Air New Zealand seniority-based system but we knew Airways would not buy into that. We came up with a system that used the basics of that, people could bid for jobs. There was a bid list for each roster and when your name came to the top of the list you could bid for the next job.
“It’s not working well at the moment because we don’t have enough staff to do the job. When people get a new job they can’t be released from their current position. People blame the bidding system for this, but it is more to do with a lack of staff.”
Dave Mainwaring and Mark wrote the new system and introduced it to the Airways contract.
The Auckland Variation
Mark also co-wrote The Auckland Variation, a nationwide job swap system, and was responsible for negotiating it into the Airways contract. This was designed to address the shortage of controllers in Christchurch following the centralisation of Auckland and Christchurch services to one location – Christchurch – and the reluctance of many Auckland controllers to move south to take up the new roles. An Auckland terminal controller who didn’t want to move to Christchurch could take an Auckland tower position, so long as someone else (possibly not even in Auckland) could be found who was prepared to move to Christchurch. Seniority considerations were also built into the system, which was administered by Airways and NZALPA.
“The aim was to preserve employment for ATCs, who only have one employer they can work for. It worked exceptionally well,” Mark says.
The wars and aftershocks
Mark says that ATCs had “a pretty good relationship” with Airways until about 1995 when a new chief executive came on board and decided NZALPA and Airways were too cosy – a relationship that could only be ended by getting NZALPA out of Airways.
“He hired a union busting firm which became involved in the 1995 negotiations – which went on for two years and resulted in seven strikes. This is why ATCs refer to this period as the wars,” Mark says.
“I was one of the three negotiators throughout this time and became the lead negotiator and industrial officer for the second part of the war. We got right through to the wall and out the other side with a contract. At the very end the firm negotiator, Patrick Greene, took me and Adam Nicholson aside, shook our hands and said we were the first union they hadn’t been able to defeat. He congratulated us on keeping our troops together and coming out the far end. Airways has never been the same since.”
Mark says he has seen terms and conditions and benefits change dramatically in the time he has been a controller.
“We have achieved everything we set out to achieve as part of our ATC vision. The main thing to remember now, for whoever follows in NZALPA, is that’s it’s very hard to improve conditions, and very easy to lose them. Don’t stuff it up!”
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