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American air-traffic controllers strike for benefits and pay, 1981
On August 3, 1981, nearly 13,000 of the 17,500 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), a United States trade union, staged a walkout and strike. The union intended the strike to address four main concerns:
- Rank and filers maintained that their work was seriously undervalued and under-rewarded
- That their work week was unreasonably long, especially in comparison to the hour worked by their overseas counterparts
- That the FAA’s approach to supervision and to union-management relations undermined morale and the safety of the system
- And that the FAA neglected serious deficiencies in staffing levels and hardware reliability.
However, in a move to focus on solely economic goals rather than a revamped work culture or genuine self-management, PATCO President Robert Poli demanded a wage increase of $10,000 a year for controllers, a reduced 32-hour four-day workweek, and a better benefits package for retirement. Controllers maintained that their demands deserved consideration, and pointed to the highly stressful nature of their job as proof. They also believed that they held the upper hand; since if they were not on the job, airplanes would have a hard time flying passengers and goods anywhere.
In actuality, negotiations between PATCO and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) –which employs air-traffic controllers—had begun as early as February. However, the federal government had balked at the package, which had a $770 million price tag. When the FAA put forth a $40 million counteroffer, including a shorter workweek and slight pay hike for some controllers, PATCO members rejected it. When contract negotiations proved unfruitful, PATCO members finally walked off the job on the morning of August 3. About 6,000 flights – nearly half of the daily load—were immediately cancelled.
Four hours after the strike, President Ronald Reagan strode into a press conference in the White House Rose garden and issued one of the defining statements of his presidency, in which he declared the PATCO strike to be in violation of a 1955 law banning strikes by government unions, and ordered members back to work. “They are in violation of the law,” he said, “and if they do not report within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs, and will be terminated.” It was true that the controllers, as federal employees, were in violation of the no-strike clause of their contracts. Nevertheless, government unions had declared approximately 22 unauthorized strikes in recent years without incurring penalties—including two ‘sick-outs’ staged by air traffic controllers in 1969 and 1970. Until President Reagan’s ultimatum, union members hadn’t even considered him an adversary, but rather had purely seen the strike as one against the FAA, an unfair employer. PATCO failed to foresee that the administration would not honor the ‘historically accepted’ guidelines for treatment of illegally striking workers.
Meanwhile, the FAA quickly put contingency plans in place to minimize the effects of PATCO’s strike. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis organized for supervisors, non-striking controllers, and military controllers to replace the strikers in manning airport towers. The FAA prioritized scheduled flights at major airports in order to keep 50% of flights available during peak hours, and also arranged to increase the matriculation rate in their training school. Due to limited traffic and increased monitoring efforts, before long, nearly 80% of scheduled airline flights were operational. PATCO members expected that the system could not be safely run without them, and did not foresee that the FAA would go against the rules of air traffic control and attempt to run the system without 85% of the experienced workforce.
The administration moved quickly to use other tools at its disposal. Criminal charges were prepared in order to bring cases against union leaders, while court proceedings began to force strikers back to work. Meanwhile, the union’s fund was impounded by court order, the union was ordered to pay a fine for each day members stayed on strike, and FBI agents composed a list of strikers. The administration also filed a petition asking for decertification of the union.
The 11am deadline on August 5th came and went, but only 1,300 of almost 13,000 air traffic controllers returned to work. Over the next two days, the government upheld its ultimatum by sending dismissal notices to the 11,345 controllers who had ignored the federal order, eventually firing and banning all from federal service for life. On August 6, five PATCO officials were arrested and jailed for resisting court injunctions against a strike. Other union leaders were also hauled off for disobeying judicial back-to-work orders. Meanwhile, the Justice Department indicted 75 other controllers.
Until enough replacements for fired workers could be hired and trained, the FAA continued to replaced controllers with non-striking controllers, supervisors, and military controllers.
In large part, a lack of support for PATCO strikers from the public, Congress, and the labor unions, enabled Reagan to crack down on the strike with such immediacy. Reagan also worked media to his advantage while framing the issue. He invoked the least ambiguous and least negotiable argument – legality – in order to cast the striking controllers as criminals breaking the oath of their work contract. He also characterized the striking controllers as depriving the public of an indispensable service. PATCO’s stress on monetary demands, however, failed to establish commonality and resonate with a public who saw air traffic controllers’ earnings as already above the national average.
The Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified PATCO as a union on October 22. Newly hired air-traffic controllers would later organize under a new union: National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).
Twelve years later, in 1993, President Clinton reversed Reagan’s decision that prohibited the rehiring of air-traffic controllers.
Although, striking air-traffic controllers failed to achieve their stated goals, and lost their jobs in the process, PATCO President Robert Poli later claimed two victories for the union: “The changes the FAA made to cope with the strike are changes we asked for years: the metering of traffic, stretching the traffic out. There will be a closer look at the FAA as to how they run their operations, and are the traffic controllers being treated fairly.”