Like Father Like Son: NATCAvism Runs Union Strong This Labor Day
Friday, August 30, 2013

From left to right: Kevin and Vinny Connelly enjoy time together outside of air traffic control.

Vinny Connelly has had a passion for organized labor since he first began his career as an air traffic controller. He was at the very first PATCO meeting, participated in the 1981 PATCO strike and was subsequently one of the thousands of air traffic controllers who lost his job. In 1995, the FAA rehired Connelly as an air traffic controller, and he immediately joined NATCA until his retirement this spring. His son, Kevin, became an air traffic controller and also joined NATCA right away. Both father and son share a love of union activism and were happy to share their story with fellow NATCA brothers and sisters in honor of Labor Day.

After high school, Vinny was taking night classes at a local college when a couple of his friends decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy to avoid the draft. They were advised to become air traffic controllers because of the good working schedule, which did not turn out to be true, according to Vinny. He went to the Navy’s air traffic school near Brunswick, Ga., and worked as an air traffic controller until he left the Navy. In December 1967, the FAA hired Vinny and he began working in New York Center (ZNY).

When Vinny first started working at the FAA, he was surprised by some of the rules and working conditions. He said it was normal for air traffic controllers to work six days a week, have managers cancel leave at random, and get sent home for wearing what managers deemed inappropriate attire. In fact, Vinny was once asked to leave and not come back until he was no longer wearing what a manager considered a “loud” necktie.

It was for those reasons, and more, that Vinny decided to attend the first PATCO meeting at the International Hotel at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. He became an Area C representative for his unit for a number of years before switching sectors and joining his PATCO brothers and sisters as an activist.

Vinny remembers how much he admired PATCO President John Leyden’s leadership. PATCO organized a number of sick-outs. During the planning for these sick-outs, activists would wait up all night to determine whether or not 90 percent of the membership voted “yes” to the sick-out as 90 percent was the number of members needed in order to go forward with the protest. Vinny remembers controllers staying up most of the night but then having to go to work because there were fewer than 90 percent of members voting yes for the sick-out.

Vinny recalls that PATCO was the only union that supported Ronald Reagan during his presidential campaign. PATCO had hoped that Reagan would help air traffic controllers get the working conditions they desired after Reagan sent a letter in October 1980 promising to do so.

“PATCO was naïve enough to think that Reagan would follow up on his promise to get them a contract,” says Vinny. “They believed that Reagan was going to treat them fairly, and that was not the case.”

In 1981, Vinny was one of more than 11,000 air traffic controllers fired by President Reagan for going on strike. He found work at Northrop Grumman as a communications engineer, and while he enjoyed the work he did, he always missed his true calling.

“I loved being an air traffic controller,” he says. “It’s part of who I was.”

In 1995, he jumped at the opportunity to work traffic once again. When he resigned at Northrop Grumman, he was offered a 25 percent pay raise to stay but declined. When his supervisor asked him why, he simply responded, “You guys don’t have enough airplanes.”

On July 11, 1995, when Kevin was a senior in high school, Vinny was back into air traffic control at New York TRACON and joined NATCA right away. While he loved being back at his profession, he realized a number of things had changed since he had last been behind the scope.

“I never heard of a facility that didn’t rotate shifts and days off,” he says. “When I came back, there were crews that had Friday and Saturday off and they were all senior guys. They rotated shifts but not days off.”

Vinny soon became a NATCAvist and began attending the conventions. He was impressed with the number of other NATCAvists and their strong passion for labor. Several years later, he remembered NATCA President Paul Rinaldi asking the PATCO air traffic controllers to stand at one convention and be recognized.

“PATCO brothers really paid the price, and NATCA really did learn from them,” Vinny reflects. “Air traffic controllers are a family and there are very few people outside of the air traffic control community who really understand what they do.”

NATCA Eastern Regional Vice President Phil Barbarello is someone that Vinny remembers caring for members like family. When Vinny returned to work in 1995, he was in New York while the rest of his family was still in Florida, where they were living while he worked at Northrop Grumman. Knowing how difficult the distance was for Vinny’s family, Barbarello helped with a transfer to place Vinny at Orlando Executive Airport in 1997. For that, Vinny says, he is eternally grateful.

A few years later, Kevin expressed interest in becoming an air traffic controller. Vinny was happy that he could share his profession and unionism with his son. Originally, Kevin never planned to be an air traffic controller, though. After college, Kevin worked at Wells Fargo before being laid off. He planned to attend law school but he then learned of the Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) for air traffic control over dinner with a family friend. He immediately enrolled in Miami-Dade College in Florida and graduated 14 months later.

Kevin wanted to join NATCA during training at the academy in Oklahoma City, but learned that he wasn’t able to until he began at his new facility, Charlotte International Airport tower (CLT). Kevin sought out his Facility Representative on his first day at CLT and joined the union.

Currently, Kevin is an area representative at CLT and has developed a keen interest in contracts. Locally, he loves being involved in scheduling and leave bidding, as well as NATCA Reloaded. Kevin believes that solidarity is one of the most important parts of a labor union and he tries to impress that upon new air traffic controllers.

When asked what he feels is most important about being part of NATCA, Kevin said, “Solidarity and standing with your brothers and sisters together to make sure everybody gets fair and equitable treatment. Without standing together with your coworkers, you can be forced into situations where you don’t think they are making the best decisions.”

Although Kevin is transferring to San Antonio International Airport (SAT) at the beginning of September, he knows it is important for him to continue to be a NATCAvist. And Vinny is proud to continue supporting his son’s activism.

“I love my son,” says Vinny. “And I’ve heard many people tell me he was a great controller, and that makes me proud.”

Although he retired earlier this year, Vinny still impresses upon people the importance of labor and unions in this country.

“It’s not just about you,” he notes. “It’s about you with everyone you work with. Because things happen that you can’t control. And your only protection is having someone bigger than you and bigger than your FacRep.”

In particular, Vinny reflects on the recent government furloughs and its effect on labor. He is immensely proud that NATCA’s work earlier this year helped end air traffic control furloughs so quickly.

“What’s the difference between you and [other government workers furloughed]?” he asks. “You’ve got a union.”

Kevin shares his father’s sentiments on the importance of unions and labor.

“Labor is so important to this country,” Kevin says. “Without it, the country wouldn’t be where it’s at today. That’s why Labor Day is such an important thing.”