Ronald Reagan and the PATCO Strike: Broken Promises and a Broken Union

When Ronald Reagan was running for President in 1980, he sent the following letter to the director of the Professional Air Traffic Controller Organization (PATCO).

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

But when the election was over, Reagan showed no sympathy for the soon to be striking workers. On August 3, 1981, the members of PATCO went on strike. Reagan gave them 48 hours to return to work and they would get to keep their jobs. He said,

“They are in violation of the law and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”

Almost 2,000 would return to work. Using provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, Reagan planned to fire those who did not return. He did. 11,435 of them. PATCO never regained their strength, influence, nor did it ever come to represent the nation’s air traffice controllers again. Reagan broke the union.

To understand the strike and Reagan’s actions, events have to put in context. PATCO was formed in 1968 with the help of attorney and airplane enthusiast, F. Lee Bailey. Airplane travel was still in its infancy and air traffic controllers had far fewer flights in the 60s than they do today. However, in the 1970s, trade and travel by air began to supplant rail and road traffic. With the advent of air conditioning in the southern and southwest US, the US was expanding into the Sun Belt. With the growth south, air traffic dramatically increased. In addition, overseas travel and trade also grew exponentially. As a result, air traffic controllers had more airplanes to literally juggle in the air.

John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988 in 1962 giving federal employees the right to bargain collectively. Section 2 delineates strike provisions.

SEC. 2. When used in this order, the term “employee organization” means any lawful association, labor organization, federation, council, or brotherhood having as a primary purpose the improvement of working conditions among Federal employees or any craft, trade or industrial union whose membership includes both Federal employees and employees of private organizations; but such term shall not include any organization (1) which asserts the right to strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, or to assist or participate in any such strike, or which imposes a duty or obligation to conduct, assist or participate in any such strike, or (2) which advocates the overthrow of the constitutional form of Government in the United States, or (3) which discriminates with regard to the terms or conditions of membership because of race, color, creed or national origin.

For PATCO, this provision is crucial. Whiile trying to improve the working conditions, the union leadership, under, Poli was seeking several conditions an increase in pay for controllers who earned between $20,462 to $49,229. The increase was to be $10,000! In addition, the union sought a five-day 32-hour work week with the ability to retire aftre 20 years. The federal government felt as if PATCO was holding the government hostage. The total cost of this compensation package was estimated to have been $770 million. Poli argued that the controllers had earned these stipulations due to the stresdful nature of their jobs. The FAA, in bargaining, counter offered a $40 million package with the shorter hours, but only a 10% increase in pay. Many pundits found that offer to be more than fair except PATCO. 95% of the membership rejected the offer.

In the past, Presidents have intervened on behalf of the public welfare to stop labor strife. Theodore Roosevelt threatened to once take over the coal mines and Harry Truman threatened to have the army run the railroads after World War II. But for Reagan, this was different. PATCO were federal employees. The other aborted strikes involved employees of business. However, a resulting strike by those workers would have a drastic effect on the nation’s economy. For this same reason, Reagan felt he had to take a stand, be it right or wrong by the perception of labor.

Up until this time, PATCO had been seen as the preeminent government labor organization.It had successfully, over the course of the 1970s, received huge gains in compensation and conditions for its workers. However, not every labor action had been successful for them. In 1970, the “Easter Uprising” was a massive “Sick out.” The FAA responded by shifting controllers to out of the way positions such as Baton Rouge. By the time of 1980 and Reagan’s letter, the FAA was just as fed up with the FAA as the public. The FAA began contingency plans in case of a strike to ensure the uninterrupted service of air travel and trade.

Between August 3 and 5 in 1981, both sides overreacted to each other. Negotiations between the parties had broken down. Each side used extreme measures to try to achieve their goals. When PATCO went out on strike on August 3, its leadership and membership thought the government would cave as it had throughout the 1970s. But this was Reagan. Despite his promises, his administration was prepared to send a message to all government employees that there was a new sheriff in town, and that sheriff was a lot tougher than the last three (Nixon, Ford, and Carter). It was a huge risk for Reagan. If major air traffic accidents occurred, then the Union would win. If the skies were safe, then Reagan would. The people and their lives became pawns in a labor strife.

After Reagan issued his pronouncement on August 3, 1981, he gave a press conference. His opening statement was unique:

Let me make one thing plain. I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike. Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union. I guess I’m maybe the first one to ever hold this office who is a lifetime member of an AFL – CIO union. But we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government’s reason for being.

It was in recongition of this that the Congress passed a law forbidding strikes by government employees against the public safety. 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.”

It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.

Reagan tried to balance his comments in the context of his past. But then again, there he stood, as a supposed proponent of labor, telling them if they did not report back to work, he would not only fire them, he would also seek criminal charges through the Attorney General. It was baffling.

The results were quick. Less than 2,000 workers returned to work. On August 5, Reagan fired those remaining on strike. The FAA hired new workers and trained them rapidly. Over the course of the next five years, PATCO tried to get its membership back to work. By 1986, the FAA relented and began hiring some back, but a new union was in place to represent the air traffic controllers. PATCO was dead. Its own hubris and Reagan’s erratic and eccentric bravado had finished it off.

During this time, the Union tried to use the courts to their advantage as they filed lawsuit after lawsuit against Reagan and the FAA. Eventually, PATCO had no more war chest to spend as it had no dues left.

Author Joseph McCartin states the long term impact of Reagan’s PATCO actions:

Reagan often argued that private sector workers’ rights to organize were fundamental in a democracy. He not only made this point when supporting Lech Walesa’s anti-Communist Solidarity movement in Poland; he also boasted of being the first president of the Screen Actors Guild to lead that union in a strike. Over time, however, his crushing of the controllers’ walkout — which he believed was justified because federal workers were not allowed under the law to strike — has helped undermine the private-sector rights he once defended.

Workers in the private sector had used the strike as a tool of leverage in labor-management conflicts between World War II and 1981, repeatedly withholding their work to win fairer treatment from recalcitrant employers. But after PATCO, that weapon was largely lost. Reagan’s unprecedented dismissal of skilled strikers encouraged private employers to do likewise. Phelps Dodge and International Paper were among the companies that imitated Reagan by replacing strikers rather than negotiating with them. Many other employers followed suit.

By 2010, the number of workers participating in walkouts was less than 2 percent of what it had been when Reagan led the actors’ strike in 1952. Lacking the leverage that strikes once provided, unions have been unable to pressure employers to increase wages as productivity rises. Inequality has ballooned to a level not seen since Reagan’s boyhood in the 1920s.

McCartin’s succinct analysis of the long-term aspects of the conflict mark what a turning point in history it was. However, the distorted view of labor and its rights by some today can also be seen as an overreaction to labor’s right to exist. This viewpoint can be traced back to Reagan and PATCO. There is a huge difference between PATCO’s right to collectively bargain working conditions, salaries, and benefits for its members versus Wisconsin Governor Walker’s denying the existence of said rights to exist at all. PATCO may have over played its hand and underestimated Reagan’s own hand. Reagan never did deny PATCO’s right to exist whereas today, the situation for unions is tenuous….at best. In the end, Reagan took a huge risk putting lives in the air at risk. On the other hand, PATCO did not do itself any favors with its prodigious demands. And, ultimately, neither side compromised putting the public at risk. As a result, today, compromise is a dying word.

For Further Reading:
Joseph McCartin – Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America.