Thirty one years ago, when President Ronald Reagan threatened to fire approximately 13,000 air traffic controllers unless they called off an illegal strike, the president not only transformed his presidency, but also shaped the labor relations in the United States. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike of August 3. 1981 was a remarkable day in the history of this country. Under the direction of union president, Robert E. Poli, 14,500 members declared a nationwide strike. Approximately 11,500 members walked off their jobs because of contract disputes with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (Landmarks in Modern American Business 719). Among the demands from air-traffic controllers were higher wages, a shorter week, and better retirement benefits. PATCO’s illegal nationwide strike left thousands of passengers stranded at airports throughout the world an 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 union demanded “$10,000 per year salary increase, a 32 hour workweek, increased pension and disability benefits, and a liberal number of familiarization flights” (Northrup 175), despite the fact that salaries are set by Congress pursuant to the civil service system. FAA management does not control wages, benefits or the length of workweek.
“Controller-FAA relations take place within the federal employee relations system, which was set on its current course by Executive Order 10988, issued by President John F. Kennedy on January 17, 1962; modified on October 29, 1969, by Executive Order 11491 issued by President Richard M. Nixon; and since 1978, governed by the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) (Northrup 167).
PATCO was a union organization with its roots in fighting for the labor rights of the national air traffic controllers. During the early 1960’s, working relations between controllers and FAA management gradually deteriorated. Controllers felt overwhelmed by working conditions, the wage negotiations process, and the general lack of management support. Since its creation in 1968, PATCO had many conflicts with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over labor issues. “Over many years between 1969 and 1981 PATCO proceeded with slowdowns, sickouts and other protests with the FAA” (library.temple.edu). The strike that ended PATCO’s bargaining days was just one of many during its tumultuous career. Furthermore, PATCO’s entire history was characterized by a desire to escape from the constrains of civil service labor relations, so that wages could be bargained and strikes legalized.
PATCO was founded in 1968 by a group of New York City controllers. In 1970, it filed with the Department of Labor for official recognition as an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and was subsequently certified. Since its inception, it was involved in at least six serious disruptions of air transport services. In July 1968, under the leadership of F. Lee Bailey PATCO’s lawyer and executive director, ordered a slowdown that lasted a month long with the purpose of disrupting key airports (Northrup 169).
In 1969, a three day slowdown prompted the then Secretary of Transportation to appoint a committee to look into the relationship between PATCO and the FAA. The result of this investigation was the Corson Report. It criticized both parties and recommended changes in FAA policies. Moreover, the FAA took action against 80 controllers for their participation in the job action by suspending them for up to 15 days.
In March 1970, PATCO instituted a sick-out that lasted 20 days becoming the most disruptive movement up until that time as 2,200 controllers...