Air Traffic Controllers Declare a Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In an effort to win labor contract disputes, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization declared an illegal work stoppage on August 3, 1981, to bring nationwide air traffic to a halt.

Summary of Event

On August 3, 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), under the direction of Robert E. Poli, union president, declared an illegal nationwide strike of 14,500 members. Approximately 11,500 members walked off their jobs because of contract disputes with the Federal Aviation Administration Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). PATCO’s illegal work stoppage temporarily left thousands of passengers stranded at airports throughout the world and caused the cancellation of thousands of scheduled flights. This unprecedented move came as a surprise, since a strike of federal employees against the government of the United States was illegal. The reaction to the illegal strike by President Ronald Reagan’s administration was also unprecedented. An ultimatum was handed down demanding that the controllers return to work within forty-eight hours. Those who refused would be fired from their jobs. Labor negotiations faltered, and the strikers maintained their walkout past the deadline. The strikers were summarily fired from their jobs and ultimately were banned from ever working as federal air traffic controllers again. Labor strikes;air traffic controllers Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization Air traffic controllers strike (1981) [kw]Air Traffic Controllers Declare a Strike (Aug. 3, 1981) [kw]Strike, Air Traffic Controllers Declare a (Aug. 3, 1981) Labor strikes;air traffic controllers Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization Air traffic controllers strike (1981) [g]North America;Aug. 3, 1981: Air Traffic Controllers Declare a Strike[04600] [g]United States;Aug. 3, 1981: Air Traffic Controllers Declare a Strike[04600] [c]Business and labor;Aug. 3, 1981: Air Traffic Controllers Declare a Strike[04600] [c]Transportation;Aug. 3, 1981: Air Traffic Controllers Declare a Strike[04600] Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;air traffic controllers strike Poli, Robert E. Eads, Gary W. Lewis, Andrew Clay, William Lacy

Events leading to the drastic action of PATCO members and the federal government’s response went back several years. During the early 1960’s, working relations between controllers and FAA management and supervisors gradually deteriorated. Controllers felt overwhelmed by working conditions, the wage negotiations process, and the general lack of management support. In 1968, a core of frustrated New York City controllers formed a professional association known as the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). F. Lee Bailey, Bailey, F. Lee a renowned criminal lawyer, agreed to draft the association’s charter and assumed directorship of the association until June, 1970. At the June, 1970, PATCO convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, the PATCO board of directors elected John F. Leyden Leyden, John F. as the union’s second president. Leyden would serve as PATCO’s president from 1970 to 1980. In 1970, PATCO also filed with the Department of Labor for official recognition as an affiliate of the AFL-CIO AFL-CIO[Aflcio] and was so certified.

During PATCO’s formative years, the association flexed its newly recognized organizational muscle and challenged its supervising body, the FAA. Only seven months after organization, controllers initiated a “work by the book” slowdown (following all regulations precisely, thus working at a slowed pace) in New York City after they decided that air traffic congestion had reached critical proportions. In March, 1970, three thousand controllers struck for twenty days after the FAA tried to carry out an involuntary transfer of four controllers from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The FAA fired fifty-two striking controllers, of whom forty-six were later reinstated to their positions, and suspended nearly one thousand more controllers for a short period of time. In June, 1978, a federal court judge fined PATCO $100,000 for a “work by the book” slowdown aimed at specific airlines that had refused to allow controllers free rides overseas on jump seats for “familiarization training.”

This rather militant history of job actions and FAA challenges led some PATCO members to feel disenchanted with the leadership of John Leyden. In January, 1980, Leyden submitted his resignation and left an opening for a more activist member, Robert E. Poli. In April, 1980, after a tough and mean-spirited election, Poli was elected as PATCO’s third president.

It was within this charged environment that PATCO began efforts to campaign for enhanced contract negotiations. In early 1980, Congressman William Lacy Clay drafted H.R. 1576, the Air Traffic Controllers Act of 1981. Under the bill’s provisions, PATCO members would have won the following job concessions: a higher wage scale than the one that applied to government workers generally, a cost-of-living provision, compensation for “unusual or strenuous hours of work,” reduction of work from forty hours a week to thirty-two, a retirement plan that “objectively recognizes the unusual occupational hazards of such employment,” a substantial increase in the number of controllers, and the clarification of FAA obligations in the bargaining process.

After introduction of Congressman Clay’s bill, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the bill would cost $13 billion over a five-year period. The media quickly publicized objections to the cost, and Poli was put on the defensive even before the scheduled FAA-PATCO contract negotiations began. In mid-February, 1981, negotiations began between the FAA and PATCO. Poli opened the bargaining session with a list of ninety-six demands and made it clear that three of PATCO’s demands were major concerns of his 14,500 members. First, he requested a $10,000 across-the-board annual pay increase for all controllers, along with a twice-a-year cost-of-living increase that would be one and one-half times the rate of inflation and a new maximum salary of $73,420, up from $49,229. Second, the union requested a reduction in the five-day, forty-hour week to a four-day, thirty-two-hour schedule. Third, Poli asked for a liberalization of provisions for retirement.

After fruitless negotiations, PATCO’s working contract expired on March 15, 1981. At the PATCO convention in May, 1981, Poli announced that PATCO would strike on June 22, 1981, if labor demands were not met. Just before the June 22 deadline, Andrew Lewis, the new U.S. secretary of transportation, made PATCO a counteroffer. The FAA package included $40 million in improvements, complete with a 10 percent pay hike for controllers who also acted as instructors, an increase in the pay differential for night work to 15 percent, and a guaranteed thirty-minute lunch period. In addition, Poli negotiated a “responsibility differential” whereby controllers would earn time-and-a-half pay after thirty-six hours worked in a week. Medically disqualified controllers would be eligible for the Second Career Program and extra training benefits. Poli got acceptance for this FAA proposal from his executive board.

Nearly one thousand people show their support for the striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization at City Hall Plaza in Boston in late August, 1981. The Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified the union in October.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Ten days later, however, upon taking the negotiated proposal to the general membership, Poli met with resistance. Put to a membership vote, the tentative contract collapsed by a margin of twenty to one. On July 31, Poli called a news conference. He emphasized again that if the government would not agree to the union’s three principal demands the $10,000 raise, the thirty-two-hour week, and improved retirement benefits the controllers would strike on August 3, 1981. The FAA raised its offer to a $50 million package with various conditions. Poli rejected the conditions, and PATCO officially went out on strike on the morning of August 3, 1981.


The illegal PATCO work stoppage on August 3, 1981, was an attempt to bring nationwide air traffic to a halt and thereby put pressure on governmental negotiators. President Reagan’s response to the strike effort was swift and decisive. On the day that it began, he declared the PATCO strike illegal and replied with a stiff ultimatum to strikers get back to work within forty-eight hours or be fired. In a Rose Garden presentation, President Reagan repeated an oath that Congress required all federal employees to take: “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.”

Approximately 11,300 PATCO members remained off the job. The president remained firm in his demands, and the striking controllers were summarily fired for their lifetimes from their jobs as air traffic controllers. Although the initial shock of the strike was significant, within three days the level of air traffic was approximately three-fourths of what it had been prior to the strike. PATCO’s plan of bringing the air traffic control system to a halt simply was not realized. This is not to imply that there was no loss of revenues or severe hardships during this period. The airlines estimated that they lost anywhere from $30 to $35 million per day as a result of canceled flights and fewer passengers willing to risk the chance of suffering cancellations or delays in their airline travel. The Air Transport Association estimated losses during the first two weeks of the strike at $210 to $315 million.

Financial losses aside, however, PATCO leaders made four strategic errors that all but doomed their strike from the very start. First, they underestimated the ability of the FAA to continue operations without the aid of the striking controllers. The FAA was able to rely on approximately 5,275 managers and supervisors, 3,225 nonstriking PATCO members, and an initial force of 500 military air traffic controllers to maintain air traffic control throughout the country. In addition, the FAA had secretly devised an emergency flight control plan (known as the 75-50 Flow Control Plan) that would reduce air traffic to a manageable level. Specifically, only one-half of the regularly scheduled flights at twenty-two of the nation’s largest airports were allowed to fly for a period of at least a month. The airlines had the jurisdiction to cancel the flights they thought were appropriate. In addition, the FAA closed sixty smaller control towers and spaced flights further apart in both distance (from five to twenty miles for jets on the same route) and time.

Second, PATCO overrated the value of its campaign endorsement in 1980 to then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. PATCO was one of the few unions to endorse Ronald Reagan during the campaign. A letter from Reagan to Poli was misread to imply total and unyielding support. In the letter, Reagan commented on “the deplorable state of our nation’s air traffic control system” and assured Poli 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 workdays so they are commensurate with achieving the maximum degree of public safety.” He also pledged that his administration would pursue a spirit of cooperation between the president and the air traffic controllers.

Third, PATCO ignored Reagan’s often-voiced revulsion to strikes by federal employees and the length to which he was prepared to go in retaliation. Reagan’s contention was that there was no strike. Federal law (Title 5, section 7311, of the U.S. Code) states that a federal civil servant may not continue to hold his or her job if he or she takes part in a strike against the government. Reagan therefore was adamant that if the controllers walked off their jobs, they had quit. Such a philosophy did not go unnoticed by other federal unions.

Fourth, PATCO failed to gain the support of other unions and the public. The union hoped that this support would bring additional pressures against the Reagan administration. Prior to the strike, Poli did not inform or seek advice from other union leaders. The walkout caught AFL-CIO president Joseph Lane Kirkland Kirkland, Joseph Lane and United Auto Workers United Auto Workers president Douglas A. Fraser Fraser, Douglas A. off guard and unprepared to assist. Although both unions paid supporting lip service to the PATCO strike, both refused to back the strike fully or to provide financial support. Public support was also blatantly missing from the PATCO strike. Gallup polls from August 6 and 7, 1981, showed 52 percent support for the government and only 29 percent for the controllers. In addition, 67 percent of respondents thought PATCO was wrong in breaking the federal oath not to strike against the government.

On October 22, 1981, the Federal Labor Relations Authority Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) voted to decertify PATCO. This was the first time the authority had stripped a government workers’ union of its bargaining rights. The three-member FLRA panel stipulated that PATCO had called, participated in, and condoned a strike. This was a clear violation of federal laws forbidding strikes by government employees. On December 31, 1981, Poli resigned as PATCO president. He was replaced by PATCO’s fourth president, Gary W. Eads, on January 1, 1982. In July, 1982, the court of appeals upheld the PATCO decertification decision of the FLRA, and PATCO was officially terminated. The termination sent a strong message to other unions of federal employees that strike behavior would not be tolerated. Labor strikes;air traffic controllers Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization Air traffic controllers strike (1981)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alter, Jonathan. “Featherbedding in the Tower: How the Controllers Let the Cat Out of the Bag.” Washington Monthly 13 (October, 1981): 22-27. Contends that PATCO’s air traffic controllers were actually overstaffed and that the union was “featherbedding” members in the towers, keeping employment unnecessarily high. Alter discloses that before the strike, nineteen thousand controllers and supervisors handled air traffic. After the strike began, nine thousand workers handled 75 percent of normal traffic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kilpatrick, James J. “They Struck a Blow for Tyranny.” National Review, October 2, 1981, 1132-1137. Discusses the PATCO strike and its blatant violation of federal law. He acknowledges that the strike caused financial losses but notes that it may also have resulted in gains beyond the price in awakening the nation to the perils of public employee unionism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magnuson, Ed. “The Skies Grow Friendlier.” Time, August 24, 1981, 14-16. Discusses the chronology of events following the PATCO strike on August 3, 1981. Emphasizes President Reagan’s firm reaction to the strike and the imposed firing of striking controllers. Also explains how the FAA was able to maintain air traffic control at ever-increasing levels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Turbulence in the Tower.” Time, August 17, 1981, 14-21. Discusses the initial impact of PATCO’s job walkout across the country and the FAA’s emergency procedures implemented to maintain air traffic control in the initial hours of the strike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meadows, Edward. “The FAA Keeps Them Flying.” Fortune, December 28, 1981, 48-52. Discusses the FAA’s reaction to the PATCO strike. The article discusses regulations implemented to handle diminished air traffic with fewer controllers as well as the plans for replacing PATCO members who were fired because of their strike participation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morganthau, Tom. “Who Controls the Air?” Newsweek, August 17, 1981, 18-24. Provides an excellent summary of the events leading up to the PATCO strike against the FAA. Also discusses the FAA’s emergency response to the strike as well as the Reagan administration’s immediate and severe reaction to the striking controllers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nagy, David. “How Safe Are Our Airways?” U.S. News & World Report, August 24, 1981, 14-17. Provides an excellent chronology of the PATCO strike. Explains in detail why the PATCO strike had little chance of success.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nordlund, Willis J. Silent Skies: The Air Traffic Controllers’ Strike. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998. Recounts the events that led to the demise of PATCO and the thousands of layoffs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shostak, Arthur, and David Skocik. The Air Controllers’ Controversy. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1986. Shostak, a union researcher and consultant, and Skocik, a fired PATCO member, provide an extremely detailed account of the PATCO strike. Although at times biased, the book provides excellent insight into the birth, growth, and final demise of PATCO.

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Categories: History