Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Air Traffic Controllers Association

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Name of Union: National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

Mission: To advance the status, professionalism and working conditions of all air traffic controllers and other aviation safety-related employees through collective bargaining, political action and other lawful concerted activity.

Current Leadership of Union: Paul Rinaldi has served as president of NATCA since 2009. He is the sixth person to hold that position. In July 2018, Rinaldi won re-election to serve an unprecedented fourth three-year term. Prior to being elected president, Rinaldi served as executive vice president for three years. He previously served as an air traffic controller at the Dulles International Airport control tower for 16 years. Working with Rinaldi, Trish Gilbert serves as executive vice president. She also has been in that position since 2009 and is serving an unprecedented fourth term. Prior to her election, Gilbert worked for 21 years as an air traffic controller at Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center. Rinaldi, Gilbert and 10 regional vice presidents make up NATCA’s National Executive Board.

Number of Members: 15,878.

Members Work As: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controllers, traffic management coordinators and specialists, flight service station air traffic controllers in Alaska, staff support specialists, engineers and architects and other aviation safety professionals, as well as Department of Defense and private sector Federal Contract Tower air traffic controllers. 

Industries Represented: All aspects of aviation safety in the United States.

History: In 1968, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) formed. The union represented air traffic controllers until 1981 when it went on strike, and President Ronald Reagan fired all of the striking controllers.

In the mid-1980s, with the help of AFGE, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association and John F. Thornton, who had been active in PATCO, FAA controllers began organizing a new union. The NATCA founding convention was held in late 1986. In addition to forming the new organization, this organizing effort brought solidarity back to the profession. In 1987, NATCA was certified by the Federal Labor Relations Authority as the exclusive representative of air traffic controllers.

NATCA quickly realized the importance of how politics affect federal employees’ rights, pay and working conditions. In 1989, it embarked on its efforts to become a legislative and political powerhouse.

Throughout the 1990s, NATCA worked zealously to transform pay for controllers, working with Congress to exclude FAA from the statutory pay system in 1996, and ultimately negotiating a new pay system based upon air traffic volume and complexity in 1998. 

The same year, NATCA became a direct affiliate of the AFL-CIO and organized the FAA’s Engineers and Architects bargaining unit, its first unit of non-operational FAA employees.

In 2006, after several months of bargaining, the FAA walked away from the table in order to exploit a provision of the 1996 collective bargaining law and, on Labor Day weekend, unilaterally imposed terms and conditions of employment, including a 30% cut to the pay bands at that time. This attempt at union busting only made NATCA stronger. The membership rallied and became more politically active. Solidarity soared as Rinaldi coined the phrase, “our collective spirit is their enemy.” 

Shortly after President Barack Obama was sworn in, he ordered the parties back to the table and a fair collective bargaining agreement was reached in short order. NATCA then moved forward with half-a-million grievances that reached the arbitration stage during the imposed work rules. 

NATCA worked hard to change the law to ensure that no work rules would ever be imposed again, and Congress passed binding mediation-arbitration for all future negotiations. 

The 2009 agreement allowed NATCA to forge a new collaborative relationship with the FAA, working together to develop and implement new technologies and procedures to make the National Aviation System (NAS) safer and more efficient. The parties developed the “Partnership for Safety,” which includes programs to address safety concerns in the operation, fatigue education and awareness, managing distractions in the NAS, and professional standards, among other things.

Always pushing the envelope for federal sector bargaining, NATCA’s 2016 agreement with the FAA formalized the collaborative process to ensure that it was not subject to the political winds.

Current Campaigns/Community Efforts: Every day, NATCA members control more than 70,000 flights as over 2 million passengers move through our NAS. Most of NATCA’s members are federal employees, and NATCA fights to protect federal workers and their rights. NATCA has long advocated for a stable, predictable funding stream that supports air traffic control services, staffing, hiring and training, long-term modernization projects, preventative maintenance and ongoing modernization to the physical infrastructure of the United States. Current stop-and-go funding jeopardizes the safety, efficiency and capacity of the NAS. This year’s 35-day government shutdown pushed the system to the brink of unraveling.

Although NATCA is busy with its advocacy efforts 365 days a year, its advocacy culminates each year at its annual lobbying event NATCA in Washington.

NATCA’s commitment to safety and training is on display each year with its Communicating For Safety (CFS) event that has become the world’s largest aviation safety conference. At CFS, NATCA presents the Archie League Medal of Safety Awards to recognize the best saves by controllers and other aviation safety professionals each year.

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