PHL Member Retires, Shares Story of Long Career
Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ernie Robinson (center, holding blue plaque) and his PHL brothers and sisters at his recent retirement party.

Ernest "Ernie" Robinson has been an air traffic controller on and off for 15 years. Originally a PATCO controller, Robinson began his air traffic control career in 1976 at Washington Dulles Tower, where he became a Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) member. He transferred to Philadelphia Tower in 1980 where he was certified as a Certified Professional Controller (CPC). But in Aug. 1981, the year of the PATCO strike, a year that resonates with air traffic controllers to this day, Robinson, along with many other controllers, lost their jobs after then-President Reagan refused to negotiate a safer work environment, reliable equipment, adequate staffing and fair work and pay rules. Little did Ernie know at the time, it would be 17.5 years before the FAA would rehire him.

"Being a minority at the time, I didn't really want to get involved with the strike," said Robinson. "I was a family man with children. But then I decided if I was going to stand for something, if I was going to call myself a human being, a man living in America, I needed to go beyond just living it. I wanted to stand for something that meant something to me. So, I joined with my fellow controllers and went on strike."

Robinson recalled the union announced it would go on strike Monday, Aug. 3. Philadelphia area members gathered at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park to picket. President Reagan gave the PATCO controllers 48 hours to return or face the consequences of losing their jobs. Several days after the strike began, a developmental member wanted to cross the picket line to go back to work, but was worried of the repercussions. Robinson decided he'd go with him and drop the strike, as well. When they got to their facility, they were turned away, and it was then that they realized they were officially out of a job.

"We were naive," said Robinson. "Initially, I thought we would be at the demonstration at 7 a.m. in the morning and once it was 7:15 p.m., I would be back at work and our contract would be renegotiated. It never even occurred to me that I would be out of work a whole day, less more than 17.5 years."

Before Robinson came to the FAA, he was a supervisor for the United States Postal Service (USPS), but he didn't realize that he would also be blacklisted after the strike was resolved.

"I must have sent in about 300 resumes over the next few years, and most of my resumes I never received a response, and if I did I got a flat out 'No.'"

Luckily after three attempts, Robinson applied at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority where he and several of his fellow PATCO controllers were hired.

After working there and then with Greyhound, Robinson wanted to try again with USPS. He wrote a letter asking to be reinstated. In response, the postal service asked him to write another letter stating that he would no longer participate in a strike against the United States government. He obliged and was reinstated.

Thanks to then-President Bill Clinton lifting the hiring ban on fired PATCO controllers, Robinson was rehired in 1998 and restarted his air traffic control career at Atlantic City before transferring to his current facility, Philadelphia Tower (PHL), in 1999.

"I was certified again after taking the test, failing, taking the test again, along with a visit to the audiologist," said Robinson. "I was older than most controllers at the time, but I'd say I was more dedicated than some others after everything I had been through."

Robinson said when he was first hired, he had some hard feelings towards the union. He said, "I just didn't feel like we had a fair shake."

But as time has passed, he said he realized things are different and the air traffic control profession takes so much more than what it used to.

"These younger people now have degrees, some advanced degrees, it's just a whole different hiring process," Robinson said. "I appreciate our union more than I used to. Our FacRep, Don Chapman, will tell you, I had a thing or two to say when I was first rehired, but I've grown to respect NATCA. I am and will always be a strong, staunch supporter of this union."

A retirement party was held in Robinson's honor on Wednesday, Oct. 17, and he said he was very honored and humbled by the recognition.

"As a rehired PATCO member who gave the ultimate sacrifice, Ernie remained committed to the labor movement," Chapman said. "Ernie's presence within our local provided a living, breathing example to both young and old of what a true union member is."