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
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
The air traffic controllers’ strike had significant effects on American business. In addition to breaking the
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.
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
U.S. Department of Transportation