Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles spotlighting veteran NATCA members looking back at the first 25 years of the union leading up to the June 19, 2012 silver anniversary of NATCA's FLRA certification. We'll profile one member each month from each of the 10 regions, in addition to also remembering key events that have helped shape the union and its growth as a strong advocate for its members and aviation safety.
“To me, NATCA really is a family,” said Rick Thompson, former RVP of Alaskan Region. “Now with all the different occupations we represent, it is a huge family of 20,000 people working for a common goal for our members and for aviation.”
A member of NATCA since its first month after certification in 1987, Thompson embodies the dedication, sacrifice and solidarity that NATCA stands exemplifies.
Thompson was hired by the FAA in May 1984 and moved to Alaska that summer. He was still training at Anchorage Center (ZAN) when John Thornton visited the facility in the spring of 1986 to meet with the controllers about forming a union. Thompson was one of just a few controllers at the meeting -- a stark reminder of the mass PATCO firings that had taken place five years ago. Of the handful of controllers in the room, they were "a bunch of kids, for the most part."
Left to right: Mary, Joshua, Jacob, Hannah & Rick.
After the meeting with Thornton, Thompson said that the dominating topic of discussions in the break room and facility was about fear; the majority of controllers at ZAN had been hired within the year and didn’t have any desire to risk a repeat of 1981. “A lot of people were scared to join the union. They just saw 11,000 people get fired and didn’t want to get fired too,” he said.
As each controller was handed a signature card for the initial vote to join the union, a number of them voiced concern about retaliation from controllers of the pre-PATCO days, especially since there was a fair amount of animosity in Anchorage in those days, according to Thompson. But he and some others put aside their fear and joined. “There was enough of us to say, ‘We can make this a better [work] place by joining together’,” he said.
At that time, Thompson said that workplace issues for NATCA were similar to those for PATCO -- management hadn’t changed, controllers wanted more of a say in the workplace along with better working conditions. So in the fall of 1987, when the first NATCA local elections were held, Thompson ran and was elected the first VP for ZAN local.
The major issues he encountered as a member and as RVP were slightly different from other facilities because Alaska is a remote and sometimes neglected site compared to the "lower 48." Controllers worked and lived in remote locations, some outside the road system, with limited services, were separated from family located in other parts of the country, received significantly less pay than controllers at other facilities and the Region was not a main concern for the FAA. “The big issue was that pay was significantly different. When locality pay started to go to the lower 48, we still had COLA. And I have no doubt as far as the FAA was concerned, Alaska was not a high priority because it was not on the beltway. To the FAA, we were on another planet,” he said.
To Thompson, NATCA’s first 25 years provided Alaskan Region members a level of visibility, representation and resolve they would not have without the union. As the Region grew in size and strength, getting its facility classification issues and representation issues addressed would have been extremely difficult without a national organization that was there to work hard for and help the members.
Thompson said that another benefit of NATCA was and continues to be the consistent solidarity and dedication conveyed by the union’s leaders. “Most of the members don’t see that day-to-day interaction, but whether I was working with McNally or Krasner or Carr or Pat or Paul and Trish, they’ve always treated us fairly, listened, and did the best they possibly could for the members in Alaska.”
Following his position as the first VP of ZAN local, Thompson was QTP local coordinator from 1992-1995 and facility representative of ZAN before running for RVP in the spring of 1997. He started his first term as RVP in September of 1997 and served four terms, through 2009.
Looking back at his time served in all of those positions, Thompson said the most gratifying part was meeting and interacting with the members, locally and nationally. Thompson most enjoyed helping "make the workplace better for everyone." His time collaborating with the agency was also very important to him.
Thompson also advised young members to be active in their local or region, get to know their facility rep. or area officer, go to local meetings and, if you have local issues to request they be put on the meeting agenda. Thompson knows from personal experience that NATCA’s RVPs work hard to keep in touch with their members and he stressed that members must keep their facility rep. and RVP informed of issues. “Your officers want to know [member issues and views] -- they are an officer because they want to help.”
And for young members looking to serve NATCA, Thompson’s advice is to
just get involved in something. “When I started I sure as heck didn’t
know what to do, but we figured it out. Just get involved in one of the
thousands of issues NATCA is involved in or get involved as an area
officer or on one of the committees.”
For young members wanting to take the leadership reins, Thompson recommends participating in the training NATCA offers, which he thinks is outstanding. “We spent an incredible amount of time on it over the last decade. We have a really talented staff and a great corps of instructors; the courses we offer are great,” he said.
Since leaving his RVP post in 2009, Thompson has gone back to ZAN, been recertified, and is back to “working airplanes." He’s also been spending more time with his family traveling the country and in December will wrap up a two-year course to become a certified financial planner.
As for the future, Thompson plans to retire in about a year and move out of state. Although "Alaska's been great to us," he said it's time for the Thompson family to go someplace where the winters are just a little bit shorter.