Reagan and the PATCO Strike of 1981

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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 The FAA had failed to hire any new controllers since 1961, and still relied on outdated and obsolete military throw outs.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...
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