On August 3, 1981, nearly 13,000 of the 17,500 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) staged a walk out and strike. There were four main reasons the union members of PATCO decided to go on strike. First, to address the concerns by members who felt that their work was seriously undervalued and under-rewarded. The second reason was that the Federal Aviation Administration had neglected serious deficiencies in staffing and hardware reliability. Thirdly, their work week was unreasonably long, especially when compared to controllers overseas. The fourth reason for the strike was the FAA’s (FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION) approach to management-union relations and the safety of the system.
The 1981 strike can be traced back to as early as the 1930’s, through postwar 50’s and up to the strike. From the beginning the controllers had always been underappreciated for the work they had done. As the numbers of unmonitored aircraft filled the air, private airline companies started up networks of air to ground radio systems to broadcast aircraft altitudes, directions of travel and speed. By 1934 the federal government stepped in and created the first modern air traffic control (ATC) regulatory system.
In June of 1956, when two avoidable air tragedies in a 12 day period claimed 202 lives, a subsequent investigation found that air travel was unsafe because we had let the air traffic control system become “outmoded and overloaded.” As a result, in 1958, the newly formed Federal Aviation Administration was authorized to modernize and expand the ATC roles. Still, for the next thirty years, air traffic controllers continued to worry about the continued neglect by management towards equipment and safety.
In 1963, another midair collision brought attention to air traffic control and this time the investigation uncovered issues with the department created to prevent these issues. The investigation showed that the FAA was working against the reforms they were supposed to be working for. The FAA had failed to hire any new controllers since 1961, and still relied on outdated and obsolete military throw outs. These actions by the FAA were causing division between the controllers and management.
The Kennedy administration in 1962 promised unionization of the public sector and that federal agencies must deal with them accordingly, with Executive Order 10988. Controllers from New York, Minneapolis, Palmdale and Washington D.C. took the historic steps and associated, while JFK Airport and Los Angeles Controllers Association was formed. These local and widely separated groups were considered weak by members. Through the following years, these small independent associations attempted to negotiate with the FAA to correct the problems at hand, and failed.
After a meeting in the fall of 1967 to discuss the actions of Atlanta and Chicago controllers, the coordinated slow-down of operations, the decision was made to create a single national organization. Controllers from Atlanta, Chicago, Kennedy, Newark and Philadelphia joined together in the first ever regional organization, called MCA, Metropolitan Controller’s Association. The next step for the new leaders of MCA was to turn their attention to the need of a coast to coast ATC alliance. MCA leaders found a criminal lawyer by the name of F. Lee Baily to guide them through the creation of the national association. At the urging of Bailey, the founding members were encouraged to come up with a name. It was certain that all involved wanted to stay away from anything that sounded like the previous association, Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO), was agreed upon.
On January 11, 1968, a general meeting was held, and over 700 hundred controllers and wives attended the meeting. F. Lee Baily gave a 2 hour speech, declaring the long overdue formation of PATCO, stating the needs and remedies of the concerns of the attendees. PATCO membership grew to over 4,000 controllers within a month. More attempts to correct the substandard safety and equipment problems were made after the formation of PATCO. A sick out in 1969 was the second try at gaining concessions from FAA and congress. This attempt failed due to poor planning on PATCOs part, and an east coast television blackout.
Ronald Reagan took the office of President of the United States on January 21, 1981. One of the first domestic events that he had to deal with was the PATCO negotiations. “The Carter administration had begun to make elaborate plans to deal with air traffic controllers in early 1980”. Reagan had learned of the strike on a Sunday morning, when Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis informed him that the members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union were threatening to strike. PATCO had endorsed Reagan during his campaign due to the plans by the Carter administration to single them out.
“Reagan told Drew Lewis to inform the union president that he, Reagan, was probably the best friend PATCO ever had in the White House”. “Reagan agreed with them that their job pressures warranted a pay raise, but not the 100% increase that they were asking for, it would cost the tax payers $700 million dollars”. This pay increase would equal about a 10,000 dollar annual pay raise per controller. Reagan could not tolerate an illegal strike and would not negotiate with them if a strike was in process.
“On the morning of Monday, August 3, 1981, thirteen thousand members of PATCO executed the plan to strike”. Immediately, 6,000 flights were canceled. FAA management declared negotiations terminated until controllers resumed their jobs. PATCO leaders stated that the strike would continue until the items in their contract were satisfied. Leaders within the union had thought that with the reduction of qualified manning, all air traffic would come to a standstill. PATCO could not foresee that the FAA would go against their own rule for air traffic control, and run the system with only 15% of the experienced work force.
The FAA moved to place 500 military controllers to replace the ones out on strike, to work alongside the 2000 controllers that did not walk out. They also prioritized scheduled flights at major airports to keep 50 percent available during peak hours. All of this helped to continually improved air operations. ‘Figures released by the FAA showed flights on schedule increased to 65 percent on Monday; 67 percent on Tuesday and by Thursday it was up to 83 percent’.
“Reagan held a press conference that morning, in the Rose Garden and read a statement, citing the pledge that all controllers had taken, never to strike. Reagan told the striking controllers that they had forty-eight hours to return to their jobs, or, he would consider their jobs forfeited and they would be terminated and would not be rehired”. When the 11 am deadline on the 5th of August arrived, of the 13,000 air traffic controllers that had walked out, only a measly 1,300 had returned to work.
The administration went to work on obtaining court orders to declare the strike illegal. This made it possible for the arrest and jail time of union leaders and fines levied against the rank and file members. On that same morning, five union officials, including the vice president were arrested and jailed for violating the court orders to return to work. The FBI was assigned to make lists of all strikers and even supporters of the strike. Court orders also impounded the union’s strike fund, some $3,000,000.00. This along with the fines of $100,000 for every hour the strike lasted, or $2,400,000 a day, bankrupted PATCO. On October 22, the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified PATCO as a union. At the end, PATCO had only $1,000,000 in assets and was in debt to the airlines for fines of $33,400,000. On July 2, 1982, a federal bankruptcy court dissolved PATCO.
PATCO made a stand in 1981, trying to bring safety to the people who trusted them while in flight. Many controllers lost their jobs and their profession. Although in PATCO members failed to realize that President Reagan expected them to stand behind the oath that they took when hired as air traffic controllers. He would not let them hold the nation hostage. The Reagan administration took quick and decisive action to bust the PATCO strike, which resonated throughout the nation and the world. Other government employees set to strike within weeks of PATCO, failed to do so. Municipal negotiations across the nation took on a different tone after the PATCO strike. Foreign governments saw that the new president meant what he said and would take a hit in the public eye to prove it.
Arthur B. Shostak, Ph.D, David Skocik, M.A. “THE AIR CONTROLLERS’ CONTROVERSY: Lessons from the PATCO strike”, New York, New York: HUMAN SCIENCES PRESS, INC, c. 1986. Mackaman, Tom. PATCO Strike. august 3, 2011. http://www.wsws.org/articles/2011/aug2011/pat1-a03.shtml (accessed october 2012). Noonan, Peggy. “WHEN CHARACTER WAS KING.”. New York, New York: Penguin Group, c. 2001. Reagan, Ronald W. “An American Life: The Autobiograghy”. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, c. 1990.
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