News & Events

Remembering PATCO: U.S. labor movement still feeling effects after 25 years

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
Septemebr 2006 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

“Our struggle must not go unheeded, but rather, it should be allowed to have as much publicity as possible for the sake of future generations of Labor. We are an important facet of American history, and our story needs to be preserved, no matter if we are seen as right or wrong.”

—Written by a fired PATCO member in 1985 and taken from the official PATCO Web site

It has been 25 years since the ill-fated Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike of August 1981. Although it wasn’t obvious at the time, this affair would come to have a tremendous impact on the U.S. labor movement. In fact, the consequences are still being felt today.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan was the newly elected president. He ran on a pro-family platform and promised a “New Beginning” (his long forgotten administration’s theme) for the country. The Iranian hostage crisis that humiliated the United States and helped to ruin Jimmy Carter’s presidency, ended on the day of Reagan’s inauguration. Union membership stood at 23.2 percent of the workforce in 1980 (as opposed to 12.5 percent in 2005).

PATCO represented some 13,000 workers who were highly skilled and highly trained professionals—including many Vietnam War veterans—with major responsibilities that affected millions of lives daily. They safeguarded air travel in this country by communicating with pilots, keeping aircraft at safe distances and safely guiding them to the ground. Controllers often recounted that this work involved many panic-filled hours during heavy traffic periods. Stress was a constant factor in their lives.

The controllers’ employer was the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The union had a rocky and highly adversarial relationship with the FAA over the years. The FAA had an abrasive and autocratic management style that actively discouraged employee input. The FAA operated on a strict military model of giving orders without question or comment. Controllers who raised issues with the FAA over radar and equipment troubles that often led to system failures were considered to be disloyal and were then harassed at the workplace. The FAA inevitably blamed the system failures on “negligent employees.” Controllers were often required to work eight-hour shifts without taking any breaks and were frequently unable to take sick leave. In addition, they were often mandated to work up to 20 hours of overtime per week. They worked short staffed and with antiquated equipment. As bargaining approached in 1981, both sides expected a very tough and contentious fight. In fact, the Carter administration had already put in place a plan to operate without the PATCO workers.

PATCO’s labor relations activities were governed by the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978. Unlike the National Labor Relations Act, wages, benefits and hours of work cannot be negotiated at the bargaining table under the CSRA. Instead, these issues are determined through Congress. The union could only directly negotiate over working conditions. And, most important, strikes were (and still are) prohibited under the CSRA.

The PATCO members were not new to mobilizing the membership and to job actions. They had conducted nationwide slowdowns and sickouts for better pay and benefits, training and equipment, staffing and retirement in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975 and 1978 and had created a group of “responsible militants” to organize and lead the membership (Rebecca Pels, The Pressures of PATCO) as well as establishing a National Controller Subsistence Fund, which the FAA saw as a strike fund.

The Reagan factor
In October 1980, PATCO met with candidate Reagan and explained their issues and concerns to him. He wrote them a letter agreeing to support them and address their concerns if elected.

“You can rest assured that if I am elected president, I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air-traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety. I pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the air-traffic controllers. Such harmony can and must exist if we are to restore the people’s confidence in their government.”

Ronald Reagan’s letter to
Robert Poli, president of PATCO
Oct. 20, 1980


Subsequently, PATCO was one of the very few labor unions that endorsed his candidacy (the others being the Teamsters and the Air Line Pilots Association). Needless to say, when candidate Reagan became President Reagan, he quickly ignored the letter. Its tone of cooperation and concern of only months before turned into one of dark threats and stern ultimatums.

At the bargaining table
PATCO had a number of critical issues to discuss at the bargaining table that year. In an intense and high-stress job, their priority bargaining demands focused on quality of work life and safety issues (their own and the public’s). These included a 32-hour work week, updated computer equipment, and an achievable retirement (89% left work before retirement due to the job stresses).

In fact, when surveyed, most PATCO members identified their top issues as a reduction in job stress/anxiety and enhancing safety. Wage increases were also on the table, but were very low on the priority list. The average controller’s salary was $33,000 per year while the average annual salary in the United States in 1981 was $12,760. So the controllers were viewed as highly-paid workers and did not evoke much sympathy from the working public. Yet, despite the safety issues and demands for modern equipment, the media only focused on the wage demand for a $10,000 increase per year and tagged the controllers as privileged and greedy. PATCO deserves much of the blame for this since it did not clearly identify its key issues. Instead, it allowed the employer and media to do so to their detriment. This was an initial proposal and everyone understood that it was subject to significant modification. But it provided a vulnerable opening that the FAA capitalized on and the media dutifully fell into line by highlighting only this proposal.

In fact, PATCO made many missteps throughout the process. PATCO’s leadership was arrogant, isolated and aloof from the labor movement. It did not work with its fellow unions in air transportation and it regularly crossed picket lines. It did not reach out to the greater labor community and the AFL-CIO as it entered into the strike. It did not sufficiently prepare its membership for the consequences of engaging in an illegal strike, nor for the aftermath. Unfortunately, the bad relations with the labor community gave unions a feeble excuse to not support PATCO. Only the Canadian and Portuguese air traffic controllers supported PATCO with a two-day action.

PATCO had managed to form an “81 Committee,” which was designed to plan and advocate a legislative agenda, prepare for negotiations, conduct a public relations campaign, and ultimately create a grassroots strike structure to prepare for a national strike (from Turning the Tide: Strategic Planning for Labor Unions, by David Weil).

Meanwhile, the FAA formed a “Management Strike Contingency Force” a year prior to the contract’s expiration and it had already planned its legal strategy. In addition, the FAA and the Justice Department had drawn up a list of PATCO activists to arrest along with plans to use injunctions, fines and criminal proceedings (all of which they acted on). The FAA even printed its “Job Action Contingency Plan” in the Federal Registry in November 1980. The employer was ready!

Despite all this, the tone was ultimately set by President Reagan. He took the get-tough approach and the American public responded. The public was hungry for decisive action of any sort from a perceived “strong president.” If we couldn’t beat the Iranian students in Tehran, at least we could kick the stuffing out of a small professional union at home. When PATCO struck on Aug. 3, 1981, Reagan ordered the strikers—who were engaged in an illegal and unprotected work stoppage—to return to their jobs within 48 hours or be fired.

Most did not return. And almost 11,350 of the PATCO members (approximately 70 percent) were fired and barred from ever working in their profession again. The issue of safety and workplace control was lost in the media frenzy and The New York Times editorialized that the firings were “a commendable precedent.”
The immediate consequences of the strike were: 85 percent of air traffic controllers went out on strike and 6,000 of 14,000 (43 percent) daily flights were cancelled. The FAA however insisted on keeping planes flying- even in the face of endangering public safety. PATCO reported 481 near misses in the first year of the strike in comparison to 10 near misses reported in the prior 10 years!

The message from the president was clear and it was simple: “It’s okay to bust your union.” Private industry soon took up that message in subsequent labor struggles. The social compact of working matters out, even after a bitter strike, was over. Now the strategy was to crush unions and eradicate them entirely. Ironically, even as this played out, Reagan hypocritically applauded the militant Polish workers’ union Solidarnosc and its anti-government strike. This is not unlike George Bush today supporting the formation of unions in China while opposing them in New Jersey and Houston.

Management consultants flourished and a new, slick industry of union-busting was born. Of course, union-busting has always existed, at least as long as there have been unions. But now, instead of wearing Pinkerton uniforms and carrying guns and baseball bats, the “consultants” wore three piece suits, worked behind the scenes, operated on the edge of the law, and were paid obscene amounts for their efforts. Most importantly, all of this had the blessing of the president.
In 2000, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was still celebrating Reagan’s attack on unions by writing, “The most important thing Mr. Reagan did was break the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, which helped break the hold of organized labor over the U.S. economy.”

Legacy and consequences
The legacy of this strike remains with us today. Fast forward to 2006 and consider the present state of affairs in the workplace, in labor law and in the country:

  • We have, globalization, NAFTA, free trade, U.S. jobs leaving the country in droves, and an actively anti-union NLRB and a Supreme Court hostile to workers’ rights.
  • A cynical Congress, led by presidential hopeful Sen. Bill Frist, unabashedly links an increase in the federal minimum wage (not raised since 1997) to massive tax breaks for the likes of Paris Hilton and the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune.
  • The news media—newspapers, television, radio, internet—have few (or no) labor reporters on their staffs who understand the issues and can report knowledgeably without resorting to the usual negative stereotypes of organized labor or to their own prejudices.
  • Our educational system teaches the youth of this country little of American labor history.
  • The NLRB has become so politicized that it no longer remotely reflects its original mission as laid out in 1935—to fairly and impartially represent workers’ rights by investigating and remedying unfair labor practices.
  • Strikes are now often viewed as counter-productive and to be avoided at all costs. Even some major unions have now adopted that approach and abandoned strikes and job actions as a legitimate tool in labor relations.
  • Companies are much more apt to use replacement workers to break a strike.
  • Concessions in pay and benefits are routinely demanded of unionized workers—invariably to “save the company.”

While all of these impacts are not directly attributable to the crushing of PATCO, the well was poisoned and the tone was set. The ruthless PATCO firings resulted not only in the destruction of a union, but also in the destructions of many families and communities as incomes were lost future employment prospects were destroyed, and home foreclosures and suicides resulted.

Conservative columnist George Will noted that the handling of PATCO by Reagan “produced a cultural shift, a new sense of what can be appropriate in business management: layoffs can be justifiable even when a company is profitable if the layoffs will improve productivity and profitability.” Everything in the name of profit became the unapologetic motto for American industry and the “pro-family agenda” quickly morphed into a “pro-profits agenda.”

The future
Despite this depressing episode in labor history, the U.S. labor movement has not and will not lie down and die. Its demise has long been predicted, and hoped for in some quarters. The struggle for a voice and control of the workplace continues today—around safe staffing levels, mandatory overtime, training and orientation, preserving real pensions, health insurance, as well as even the right to have a union. The PATCO workers and their sacrifice must be remembered and recognized, by the labor community and the public for the issues that they brought to light.
The U. S. Government Accounting Office issued a report to Congress in 1986 that only five years after the strike there was no discernable difference between the comments of a senior controller from that of a newly hired one. The critical issues that PATCO raised were never addressed. As air traffic volume has increased dramatically since 1981, staffing levels remain a primary concern. The FAA has touted its plans to train and hire significant numbers of new air controllers, yet hired a total of 13 in fiscal year 2004.

The issues remained the same: frustration with management, safety concerns, stress and a lack of control over the workplace. This resulted in a new union being formed, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). NATCA was certified in 1987 and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

And, like a Phoenix, PATCO was recertified as a union as an affiliate of OPEIU, AFL-CIO early in 2006 and has begun to organize again.