The PATCO Decision

After the 1980 U.S. Elections, Americans had elected a president who would shape rhetoric for modern conservatism: Ronald Reagan. Among some of his accomplishments were introducing supply-side economics (dubbed Reaganomics), launching the War on Drugs, and increasing national defense spending to a rate which the Soviet Union could not keep up with, setting the stage for the USSR’s collapse in 1991 when his Vice President was Commander-in-Chief.  Nevertheless, the most important, if not most consequential, event in President Reagan’s presidency was his handling of the 1981 PATCO strike.

The Professional Air Traffic Control Organization (PATCO) was a trade union for the air traffic controller profession, which employed many military veterans. Air traffic controllers do as the title suggests: they direct aircrafts and guide pilots to maintain efficiency in the airways and safely mitigate delays. It is a highly skilled and dangerous job which requires lots of specialization. PATCO was in constant negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whom they quarreled with regularly. PATCO’s angsty relations with the FAA led them to stray away from Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Ronald Reagan won the PATCO endorsement for that election, who himself was a former Union leader of the Screen Actors Guild, which represented actors.

President Reagan and PATCO’s relationship did not last even one month into his first term before turning sour. In February of 1981, PATCO began negotiations with the U.S. Government towards a new contract. Banking on their 1980 endorsement and high hopes, Robert E. Poli, the PATCO President, demanded a $10,000 pay increase for all air-traffic controllers, a stronger retirement benefits package, and a 32-hour work week. Air traffic controllers have to be vigilant every second of their shift, so it made sense that Poli sought shorter shifts for optimal employee usage. However, these negotiations were deemed superfluous imminently, and stalled for months.

In June 1981, the FAA came back with a new three-year contract, in which they offered $105 million in raised, to be paid in 11.4% increases over the next three years; this was more than twice a raise compared to what any other federal employee was receiving this year. PATCO rejected this offer, nevertheless, since it did not include the 32-hour work week or an earlier retirement. Affairs would stir until August 3rd, 1981.

On August 3rd, 1981 at 7:00 a.m., the PATCO strike officially began when 12,000 members walked off the job. This strike sought all of the original PATCO demands, but was also deemed illegal since federal government employees are prohibited from participating in a strike. Furthermore, President Reagan saw the strike as a peril to national security and demanded all of the workers to return to work under Taft-Hartley Act regulations. If air traffic is not being controlled, the same results pan out which would occur if all the roads did not have stop signs or flashing lights. After this declaration, about 90% of air traffic controllers stayed on strike.

President Reagan was not bending a knee to the protestors. At 10:55 a.m., he said, “let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees, a sworn affidavit, when they accepted their jobs: ‘I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the Government of the United States or any agency thereof.” Certainly, the President was not willing to concede here and afterwards, Reagan offered an ultimatum: return to work in 48 hours or forfeit your job. The only meaningful developments in the next 48 hours were a few court sentences forcing PATCO President Robert Poli and a few of his members to pay fines, a downsizing in air traffic, and a continuing strike.

48 hours later, on August 5th, 11,345 air traffic controllers had formally been fired and banned from federal service for life after continuing their strike. To prevent a shortage dilemma, the FAA maneuvered their systems by working with non-striking personnel, transferring controllers into busier facilities, and even utilizing military controllers until replacements were trained. Meanwhile, PATCO was decertified in October 1981, and air traffic controller numbers became steady again within a decade. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) had been formed in 1987 to succeed PATCO and the civil service ban on striking participants was eventually lifted by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Reagan left a permanent legacy in the August of 1981 which labor historians highlight as a changing tide in labor relations. Union powers were diminished by the Reagan precedent and the number of union strikes dwindled from over 380 in 1970, down to 11 in 2010. Reagan also cemented a “tough guy” persona in this episode, as his willingness to take risks was exhibited. Although he was not attempting to set such a large mark on labor, he laid the groundwork for many companies, such as former mining company Phelps Dodge, to lay off striking employees rather than negotiate with them. The precedent Reagan set by exercising a law otherwise deemed nuclear paved the path for a pro-corporate faction of the U.S. to spur, full of right-to-work aficionados.

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