The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
20. The Air Traffic Controllers' Strike

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
On August 3, 1981 nearly 13,000 of the 17,500 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) walked off the job, hoping to disrupt the nation's transportation system to the extent that the federal government would accede to its demands for higher wages, a shorter work week, and better retirement benefits.  At a press conference in the White House Rose Garden that same day, President Reagan responded with a stern ultimatum: The strikers were to return to work within 48 hours or face termination.  As federal employees the controllers were violating the no-strike clause of their employment contracts.  In 1955 Congress had made such strikes a crime punishable by a fine or one year of incarceration -- a law upheld by the Supreme Court in 1971.  Nevertheless, 22 unauthorized strikes had occurred in recent years -- by postal workers, Government Printing Office and Library of Congress employees, and by air traffic controllers who staged "sick-outs" in 1969 and 1970.
Negotiations between PATCO and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began in February 1981.  PATCO president Robert Poli demanded an across-the-board wage increase of $10,000/yr for controllers whose pay ranged from $20,462 to $49,229; the reduction of a five-day, 40-hour work week to a four-day, 32-hour work week; and full retirement after 20 years service -- a package with a $770 million price tag.  The controllers argued that they deserved these considerations due to the highly stressful nature of their very important work.  The federal government balked at these budget-busting demands of more money for less work, well aware that other federal employees were likely to take action to improve their lot if PATCO succeeded.  The FAA made a $40 million counteroffer which included a shorter work week and a 10 percent pay hike for night shifts and those controllers who doubled as instructors.  Further negotiations between Poli and Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis sweetened the pot even more.  Nonetheless, 95 percent of PATCO's membership rejected the final settlement.  The FAA began work on a contingency plan that would go into effect if a strike occurred.
Designed to take place during the busiest time of the year for airlines, the strike threatened major carriers like Braniff, Eastern, American and TWA, who reported losses of $30 million a day during the strike.  These companies had been counting on a summer surge in business to offset losses due to fare and route deregulation which had spurred the growth of new, smaller carriers that effectively competed with the giants.  Concern grew regarding the extent to which the strike would impact business and the economy.  Air transportation was a $30 billion-a-year business; every day 14,000 commercial flights carried 800,000 passengers -- 60 percent of them on business trips -- while 10,000 tons of air cargo was transported daily.  Airlines employed 340,000 people and revenue losses due to the strike forced some to resort to layoffs and management wage cuts.  The fresh fruit, fresh flower and fresh fish markets depended on swift air transport, as did other industry in need of spare parts, health care services for blood supplies, and the financial system for paper fund transfers.  But other businesses prospered thanks to the strike -- among them Trailways and Greyhound, the Amtrak rail service, and car rental agencies, as travelers sought alternate means of transportation.
To the chagrin of the PATCO strikers, and the surprise of nearly everyone else, the FAA's contingency plan functioned smoothly, minimizing the strike's effects.  Approximately 3,000 supervisors joined 2,000 non-striking controllers and 900 military controllers in manning airport towers.  The FAA ordered airlines at major airports to reduce scheduled flights by 50 percent during peak hours for safety reasons.  Nearly 60 small airport towers were scheduled to be shut down indefinitely.  The FAA's Oklahoma City training school, which normally produced 1,500 graduates per 17-21 week course, considered plans to increase that matriculation number to 5,500.  (More than 45,000 people applied within four weeks of the strike's onset.)  PATCO strikers made dire predictions about reduced air safety as a consequence of the 60-hour work week put in by their replacements, but in fact limited traffic and the extra monitoring efforts of the 33,000 Air Line Pilots Association members diminished the risk of an "aluminum shower," as controllers euphemistically called an air accident.  Before long, about 80 percent of airline flights were operating as scheduled, while air freight remained virtually unaffected.
There wasnt much support for the PATCO strikers.  The public sided with the government and exhibited little sympathy for individuals whose earnings were already well above the national average.  AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland accused Reagan of "brutal overkill" in firing the strikers, and another union leader complained that the president was engaged in "union-busting," but pilots and machinists continued to do their jobs in spite of the PATCO picket lines, while labor strategists criticized Poli for calling an ill-advised strike that damaged Labor's image.  The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers considered a boycott of U.S. air traffic to show support for PATCO, but it never developed.  (Canadian and Portuguese controllers did engage in a two-day boycott.)
 The federal dreadnought turned all its big guns on the hapless strikers.  PATCO leaders were hauled off to jail for ignoring court injunctions against a strike.  The Justice Department proceeded with indictments against 75 controllers.  Federal judges levied fines amounting to $1 million a day against the union while the strike lasted. Over 11,000 strikers received their pink slips, while 1,200 went back to work within a week's time.  Morale among the strikers was shaky. "I thought Reagan was bluffing," lamented one controller.  In October the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified PATCO.
Two months after the strike, a congressional committee report indicated that by January 1983 only two-thirds of the controllers needed for full and safe operation of air traffic would be in place, and recommended rehiring some of the strikers who had been fired.  The administration curtly refused, and Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis declined even to meet with PATCO leader Robert Poli.  By 1984 air traffic had increased by 6 percent while there were still 20 percent fewer controllers than had been on the job prior to the strike.
According to journalist Haynes Johnson, the decisive manner in which Reagan handled the PATCO strike convinced many Americans that he was "the kind of leader the country longed for and thought it had lost: a strong president" -- in sharp contrast to the widely-held view that Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had been too indecisive.  Reagan stressed that he derived no satisfaction from sacking the controllers.  He pointed out that he was the first president to be a lifetime member of the AFL-CIO.  And he was aware that PATCO had been one of the few unions to support his presidential bid.  "I supported unions and the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively," he wrote in his memoirs, " but no president could tolerate an illegal strike by Federal employees."

A Reagan Letter to Robert Poli, PATCO (Oct. 20, 1980)

Dear Mr. Poli:
     I have been briefed by members of my staff as to the deplorable state of our nation's air traffic control system.  They have told me that too few people working unreasonable hours with obsolete equipment has placed the nation's air travellers in unwarranted danger.  In an area so clearly related to public safety the Carter administration has failed to act responsibly.
     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 President and the air traffic controllers.
Ronald Reagan
Illustration in a leaflet distributed by the Los Angeles local of PATCO during the strike. It reads "If the blast don't get you...the fallout will." The leaflet urged pilots, flight attendants and others to support the strike.


The Economist, 27 June 1981, 15 August 1981

Newsweek, 29 June 1981

Time, 17 August 1981, 24 August 1981, 2 November 1981

U.S. News & World Report, 17 August 1981, 24 August 1981, 31 August 1981

Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years
Haynes Johnson (New York: Doubleday, 1991)

An American Life
Ronald Reagan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990)