2005-01-21 18:47:00
Embassy Guatemala
Cable title:  


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This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.


E.O. 12958: N/A



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. Guatemalan air traffic controllers walked off the job on
January 11, shutting down Guatemala's airports for 20 hours.
They were protesting the GOG's refusal to renew their
employment contracts, which had expired December 31. At
least one commercial aircraft landed without tower assistance
or runway lights. The government found replacement
controllers to reopen Guatemala City's and one other airport
the following day, but three more airports remain closed.
President Berger publicly fired the controllers and said
charges would be filed against those responsible for turning
off the runway lights with planes inbound. Charges were
filed against five controllers -- allegedly the ringleaders
of the walkout -- who are currently free on bail.

Air Traffic Controllers Walk Off the Job

2. Guatemalan air traffic controllers (ATCs) walked off the
job January 11 citing the lack of a formal contract for 2005
and the failure to obtain further work-related benefits. The
walkout shut down all five government-run airports in the
country, including Aurora International Airport in Guatemala
City. President Berger announced that all of the "striking"
ATCs were fired and that charges would be pressed against

3. The following day, the Government of Guatemala (GOG)
received temporary support from Mexican and Salvadoran ATCs,
as well as staff from TACA Airlines, who operated Aurora
airport until January 19. So far, eight Guatemalan ATCs have
returned to work, augmented by five additional Guatemalan
emergency replacement ATCs, and are operating Aurora
International in the capital and Tikal airport in the north
of the country. The other three airports, serving San Jose,
Retalhuleu, and Puerto Barrios remain closed. The
Directorate of Civil Aviation told us that upon arrival in
the Aurora tower, the replacements found no aviation charts
or data on lower and upper airspace management in Guatemala.
Following a frantic request, this embassy's office of the

National Geospatial Intelligence Agency provided the data.

4. Five of the ATCs, including the officers of the Air
Traffic Controllers' Association, were arrested for "impeding
maritime or aviation security" and "endangering public
safety" but are currently free on bail of 30,000 Quetzales
(USD 3850) each. They, and 47 other ATCs are currently
staying together in a Guatemala City hotel owned by Joe
Habie, owner of Tikal Jets, a bitter (but much smaller) rival
of regional carrier Taca, which loaned replacement
controllers. Their leaders tell us that this is for their
safety and to maintain solidarity amongst them.

5. The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers'
Associations criticized the GOG's decision to fire,
prosecute, and replace the Guatemalan ATCs, specifically
noting that the replacement ATCs are not certified in
accordance with International Civil Aviation Organization
(ICAO) standards. Local members of the Guatemalan Aero Club
told us that the Guatemalan Civil Aviation Directorate had
canvassed their members looking for anyone willing to work in
the tower. They told us that one of the volunteers was 82
years old and that several of them had no formal air traffic
control qualifications.

Shutting Down the Airport

6. As the previous ATC employment contracts expired December
31, 2004, the ATCs had been working without any legal
employment status. The ATC Association (which is not a union
or a legally mandated bargaining agent) held a meeting at
Aurora International Airport on the afternoon of January 11
in which the membership proposed a walkout if a new contract,
including several benefits that had been under negotiation
with Jose Antonio Presa Abascal, Director of Civil Aviation,
was not established immediately. ATC representatives told us
that one reason for the urgency was a rumor that the
Directorate of Civil Aviation needed to achieve a budget cut
that might result in terminating the positions of as many as
six ATCs. Presa told us that he had written each ATC to say
that new contracts would be ready for signature by January
15, and that the ATCs appearance at work in January
constituted acceptance of the contract extension while
negotiations continued.

7. When no resolution had been achieved with Presa Abascal by
early evening, he and two of the Association's officers went
to meet with Minister of Communications, Infrastructure, and
Housing Eduardo Castillo, who was attending an event at a
local hotel. The Minister reportedly offered a meeting with
the associations' officers during the following week. When
the officers returned to Aurora International at
approximately 8:00 pm to inform the association's membership
of what had transpired, the members voted to walk off the job
effective immediately. They continued to operate the control
tower until the last regularly scheduled passenger flight had
arrived and then shut down airport operations.

8. At approximately 9:00 pm a flight from Transportes Aereos
Guatemaltecos (TAG) entered Guatemalan airspace from El
Salvador bound for Aurora International. ATC representatives
maintain that they immediately warned the pilots that Aurora
was closed and that they must return to Salvador
International. The pilots noted that they needed to contact
their company for guidance. (Note: Conversations between
the tower and approaching aircraft are recorded on audiotape
and have been widely reported. End note.) The ATCs note
that they warned them again at 35 miles out and once again at
15 miles out. The pilots continued their approach to Aurora
International, however, and landed without the assistance of
tower control or runway lights. A letter of complaint by
TAG's Chief Administrator claims that they were warned at the
15-mile mark. The TAG aircraft's non-approved landing is the
basis for charges against the ATCs of endangering public

The labor negotiations

9. Guatemalan ATCs are government employees hired under a
specific type of contract known as a "029" by the budget line
item that authorizes such contracts. As the government can
terminate 029 contracts at any time, the ATCs had wanted to
obtain full civil servant status in their new employment
contracts. Other demands included a general salary increase
of 5,000 Quetzales (USD 640) per month, reclassification of
supervisory positions with an additional salary increase,
addition of at least six new positions to allow for a
training float and to cover attrition, and the replacement of
non-functioning equipment.

10. Stated in the 2004 contract is the requirement that a new
contract must be in place at least twenty days before the
expiration of the existing contract, which occurred on
December 31. The ATCs told us that the absence of a contract
by the statutory deadline of December 11 and by the
expiration of the 2004 contract on December 31 demonstrated a
legal failing on the part of the GOG. The eleven days in
January, ATC representatives continued, technically were a
period in which the ATCs had no legal right to enter the
tower to provide their services. They note that they would
have had no legal protections should an accident have
occurred while they were working without a contract.

11. The ATC representatives note that they did not ever refer
to their actions as a "strike" because their contracts had
expired. As they were not formally employed, they had no
position from which to strike. (Note: This point is
important under Guatemalan law because all strikes must be
certified by a labor court judge in order to be legal. While
the International Labor Organization's definition of
essential services does not include transportation, President
Berger has the right under Guatemalan law to terminate a
strike that impedes essential services, including
transportation. Should the ATCs have continued a work
stoppage either without a judge's certification or after a
Presidential order to return to work, they would have been in
violation of Guatemalan law. End note.) Nonetheless,
Director Presa told us that his lawyers assured them that the
charges against the ATCs for abandoning their posts and
endangering air traffic were solid.

12. In order to return to work, the association now demands
that the GOG drop charges against the association's
leadership, provide contracts for all of the association's
membership, reclassify the jobs as permanent employment,
replacement of faulty equipment, and appropriate training
measures for new employees. The GOG remains publicly
committed to the dismissal of all of the ATCs who walked off
the job; however, eight ATCs have returned to work after they
signed statements saying that they had walked off the job due
to intimidation by association leaders.


13. It appears that the ATCs are, Director Presa's statements
notwithstanding, on safe legal ground, but their actions on
January 11 were ill conceived and counterproductive. So far,
the ATCs have demonstrated impressive solidarity, but we
imagine that the government will lure additional defectors in
order to strengthen its bargaining position. Given the
amount of time and training required to qualify and the lack
of immediately available replacements, we would not be
surprised if the GOG eventually rehired the majority of the
ATCs other than the five currently facing charges. The GOG,
for its part, had an important role to play in this fiasco.
The failure to resolve this issue, even by offering an
identical contract to that of 2004, by either the December 11
or December 31 deadlines was inexplicable.

14. There may be more going on in this struggle than just a
labor rights action. Accusations and counteraccusations of
corruption, criminal activity, anti-competitive practices by
the airlines, and the possibility of future concessioning of
all airport services are important factors that affect how we
should view this struggle in a broader perspective.