On This Day

PATCO strike, air traffic controller strike
Striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization join in a rally at O’Hare International Airport in
Chicago, Aug. 5, 1981.

On This Day: US Air Traffic Controllers Go On Strike

August 03, 2011 05:00 AM
by Erin Harris
On Aug. 3, 1981, 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike, defying a law barring government unions from striking. Their ultimate defeat altered U.S. labor relations.

Illegal Strike Costs Air Traffic Controllers Their Jobs

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), created in 1968 to represent air traffic controllers, first caught the government’s attention in 1970 by staging a “sickout,” beginning a decade of negotiations over working conditions with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In February 1981, PATCO President Robert Poli met with the FAA and demanded a $10,000-per-year wage increase for each controller, a four-day workweek, and full retirement after 20 years. The demands would have cost the FAA $770 million.

The FAA presented a $40 million counteroffer, which would grant a shorter workweek and a 10 percent pay increase to controllers who worked night shifts or doubled as instructors. Contract negotiations stalled, however, when 95 percent of PATCO’s members rejected the FAA’s proposal and began making arrangements to strike.

At 7:00 a.m. on Aug. 3, 13,000 PATCO members went on a strike in violation of a law barring federal employees from striking against the government.

President Ronald Reagan responded immediately, issuing an ultimatum: Return to work within 48 hours, or be fired for breaking federal law. Two days later, 11,345 air traffic controllers were fired and given a lifetime ban from working as controllers.
Union leaders accused Reagan of “brutal overkill,” but Reagan, himself a member of the AFL-CIO, said that “no president could tolerate an illegal strike by federal employees.”

To PATCO’s dismay, workers were quickly replaced and the FAA kept flights operating with few delays or cancellations. “Having formulated careful contingency plans, the FAA kept planes flying using supervisors, non-strikers, and military controllers,” Jack Kelly writes in American Heritage. “The first day of the strike, 60 percent of normal flights continued. Four days later, almost 80 percent were operating.”

The FAA moved on without the PATCO controllers, who were left without jobs. On Oct. 22, the government decertified PATCO.

“Like a Piper Cub lost in a thunderstorm, the tiny Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization—representing 85% of the 17,500 federal employees who direct the nation's air traffic—veered wildly off course.,” wrote Time magazine. “It flew into a rage against its employer, launching an illegal federal strike. An angry Ronald Reagan, revving up the full jumbo-jet power of the U.S. Government, deliberately bore down on the defiant union.”

Opinion & Analysis: Redefining Labor Relations

Poli accused Reagan of “trying to break the union,” while Assistant Attorney General Rudy Giuliani defended the President’s decision, calling the strike “a blatant violation of federal law.” The government did not hesitate to replace controllers, a decision that would redefine labor relations for years to come.

NPR, citing historian Joseph McCartin, writes, “Prior to PATCO, it was not acceptable for employers to replace workers on strike, even though the law gave employers the right to do so. The PATCO strike eased those inhibitions.”

The Reagan Administration’s crackdown intimidated other labor unions and the incidence of strikes soon dropped dramatically. “We have nothing to bargain with now,” a union official told American Heritage. “Labor has an empty gun.”

Later Developments: Air Traffic Controllers Reorganize

In 1987, air traffic controllers voted to form a new union to replace PATCO, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton lifted the ban from federal re-employment that Reagan had imposed on PATCO’s striking members. The New York Times called the ruling “a victory for organized labor,” one that “would have symbolic weight for Mr. Clinton as well, signaling a more compassionate, pro-labor stance.” Ultimately, about 850 workers were rehired.

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