"I made two bad mistakes in life," Phil Miller says. "I went to Vietnam and I walked away from a job that I loved."
Miller, a 43-year-old Air Force veteran, is doing fine these days as a Boston defense consultant. But the job that he walked away from still haunts him like a stormy romance he wishes he'd never broken off.
As a younger man, Miller was part of a national fraternity of professionals who prided themselves on their unique ability to bring order out of chaos. Then their world blew up and they were consigned to the hell of normal jobs. Today they are contractors and printing company bosses and liquor store owners and prison guards and factory workers.
They are the 11,400 U.S. government air traffic controllers who went on strike 10 years ago next week in a contract dispute with the Federal Aviation Administration, and were fired en masse by then-President Ronald Reagan, the strongest action ever taken against striking federal workers by a U.S. President.
It was a roll of the dice that most ex-controllers still regret.
"I don't think any of us would have done it again, knowing the results. It's too high a price to pay," said Gary Williams, who so desperately missed the work that he went to Canada and hired on as a controller at Toronto International Airport two years ago after running a hot-tub business for eight years.
Several dozen other onetime strikers have ventured to Australia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. More than 100 others have found jobs at small U.S. airports that contract traffic control to private firms.
The public legacy of the strike still ripples through American society.
Reagan's decision to quickly fire the controllers and decertify their union, rather than attempt to negotiate an end to the strike, is regarded by labor analysts as a catalyst in American management's increasingly aggressive tactics against unions. In response to prolonged labor criticism of that trend, the House of Representatives last week voted to ban private companies from permanently replacing striking workers.
In addition, the mass firing caused years of delays in commercial aviation, as well as a shortage of experienced controllers that still plagues the FAA. The primary complaints of the controllers who struck--outdated computer equipment and insufficient training--remain primary complaints of the controllers who replaced them.
The private legacy of the strike is the collective melancholy, often bitter sigh of thousands of ex-controllers. Most of them are men now in their 40s and 50s. Many are military veterans with only high school diplomas.
They had been convinced by their union that the FAA would not risk functioning without them. Yet the majority of scheduled flights resumed quickly, if not on time.
They had been convinced that Reagan's firing would not stick. Even as the government began the unprecedented step of rapidly training thousands of new, younger controllers to replace the strikers, many on the picket line continued to believe that a back-to-work settlement would be fashioned between the FAA and their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. That, after all, was the way labor-management relations had traditionally worked in the public and private sectors.
It was not to be. Four months after the strike began, Reagan signed an executive order barring strikers from re-employment in FAA facilities. It still stands. Periodic attempts by sympathetic congressmen to force the FAA to rehire several hundred of the controllers have failed.
As reality gradually set in, the ex-controllers struggled with self-doubt, second-guessing and new career paths. Some succeeded. Others continue to wobble. But one harsh truth still binds them: Virtually none have been able to find anything as fulfilling as the adrenaline rush involved in trying to keep airplanes from crashing into one another. The art of "getting the picture," of knowing where every plane in your assigned sector of airspace or ground is located at a given instant, of anticipating and instructing where it will be in the next moment, is the ultimate high-stakes video game.
"There aren't any rushes in my job," said Miller, who spent seven months as an ironworker after the strike but now works for a company that designs air traffic control systems for the Department of Defense. "There's no immediate gratification here. I really miss sitting down and working a bunch of airplanes and seeing the results of what I did. Losing that was like losing a member of the family through death, someone you'll never see."
"I can probably handle a lot more pressure than other people in my job," said ex-striker Tom Obarski, now a Denver stockbroker, "but so what? The way the rest of the world operates, it's OK not to be able to handle a lot of things at once. The skills you were most proud of are now the least important."