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Obituaries

Charles Sheehan; Local Leader of Fired Air Traffic Controllers

March 14, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles F. "Chuck" Sheehan, Southern California labor leader who headed the local air traffic controllers union when President Ronald Reagan ousted them because of a strike against the federal government in 1981, has died at the age of 53.

Sheehan died Friday after collapsing during an outing with friends and family in Monrovia.

"I still miss [the job] immensely," Sheehan told The Times in 1991 as he headed for a 10-year reunion of the fired strikers in Washington. "It grows in your blood. Every day you don't know what's going to happen. It builds and it builds to a point where you need that challenge. It's almost like a drug high. We'd get to work in the morning and we'd fight each other to get the busier [control tower] positions in the morning rush."

Sheehan went on to earn a degree in labor studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills and, after volunteering as an unpaid union worker for several years, got a job as area representative for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in 1988.

An ardent unionist, he worked to coordinate job actions against the now-defunct Eastern Airlines, Greyhound Bus Co. and the National Football League.

Sheehan first trained as an air traffic controller during Navy service in the Vietnam War. He worked as a Federal Aviation Administration air controller from 1970 until he was fired in 1981, directing planes in and out of airports in Rochester, N.Y., Chicago and Indianapolis as well as Los Angeles. He also helped prepare a training manual for other controllers.

As head of the Los Angeles local, Sheehan urged his colleagues to join others in the 11,400-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization who went on strike in August 1981, complaining of outdated computer equipment and insufficient training. Taking a hard line against illegal strikes by federal workers--even unionists who had supported him in his run for president--Reagan fired all the controllers and decertified their union rather than negotiate. Four months later he issued an executive order barring strikers from reemployment in FAA facilities.

Despite his heart problems, which he had long attributed to the stress of his controller job at Los Angeles International Airport, Sheehan remained active in public service. In recent years, he served on the board of the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic and was a member of the Monrovia-Arcadia-Duarte Town Council, which represents unincorporated areas surrounding those cities.

Sheehan is survived by his wife, Nancy: a daughter, Sarah; and a brother, Joseph of Buffalo, N.Y.

A memorial Mass is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Friday at Annunciation Church in Arcadia.

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