Air traffic controllers’ strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981 violated federal law and the terms of the controllers’ contract. The president responded to the strike by terminating striking workers, significantly weakening both PATCO and the American organized labor movement generally.

By the 1980’s, American unions had become less powerful. In 1981, one of those unions, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers OrganizationProfessional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), sought to improve its members’ pay while reducing the stress its workers faced on the job. The controllers’ principal employer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), refused the union’s demands, and PATCO decided to call a Strikes;air traffic controllersstrike during the peak of the travel season. The union believed that the government would have no choice but to concede to prevent the airline, shipping, and tourist industries from being crippled. President Ronald Reagan, RonaldReagan instead responded with an ultimatum: The air traffic controllers were to return to work within forty-eight hours or face termination.Air traffic controllers’ strike

Although federal employees had a mandated no-strike clause, PATCO felt that it had the right to call a strike because negotiations had failed to achieve the desired results and other federal workers in the past had used similar tactics. By the end of July, union president Robert E. Poli had been working on a deal with the government for six months to no avail: The government’s offer was rejected by 95 percent of the union’s membership. On August 3, 1981, a strong majority of that membership took to the picket lines.

PATCO sought higher wages, a shorter workweek to alleviate the stress of the job, and better retirement benefits. At the time, the airline industry enjoyed revenues of $30 billion per year, and the union assumed that drastic government action would jeopardize that revenue. However, after the president fired the striking controllers, the FAA implemented a contingency plan that successfully restored air traffic standards to normal operating levels within a few weeks.

More than eleven thousand air traffic controllers lost their jobs as a result of the strike. Moreover, on October 22, 1981, the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified PATCO, removing its ability to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of its members. In 1987, collective bargaining power would be reassigned to the National Air Traffic Controllers AssociationNational Air Traffic Controllers Association. The illegal strike was never supported by the public, which instead tended to agree with the president.

The air traffic controllers’ strike had significant effects on American business. In addition to breaking the Unionsunion’s hold on the airline industry, it sent a message to other unions and their members, as well as to management in other industries: Organized labor was weakening, and the administration of President Reagan was willing to exert its influence on the side of management.

This power shift in labor-management relations corresponded with advancements in technology that increased productivity, allowing managers to accomplish more with fewer workers. Many other industries sought to use technology to increase the power of management and weaken that of labor. For many years after the air traffic controllers’ strike, unions were not respected as a valuable tool by employers. Many companies cut jobs, pensions, and other employee benefits. It would take almost fifteen years for the unions to regain their strength and worth in the workplace.

Further Reading
  • Nordlund, W. Silent Skies: The Air Traffic Controllers Strike. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998.
  • Round, Michael A. Grounded: Reagan and the PATCO Crash. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Air transportation industry

Aircraft industry

Labor history

Labor strikes

U.S. Presidency

U.S. Department of Transportation

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