PATCO Strike

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PATCO Strike

United States 1981


Following failed efforts to reach a contract agreement, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), a union affiliate of the AFL-CIO, polled its members for a strike vote on 31 July 1981. Ninety-five percent of the air traffic controllers voted to strike. PATCO president Robert Poli set the strike date at 3 August if union demands were not met. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the employer of the air traffic controllers, refused to change the last offer to the union. President Ronald Reagan, who had been supported by PATCO in his bid for election less than a year before, announced on 3 August that if the strikers did not return to work within 48 hours, their jobs would be terminated. Reagan decertified the union and fired 11,359 air traffic controllers for not returning to work. The move enforced a 1955 regulation that denied federal employees the right to strike. His forceful action against the strikers set the tone for labor-management relations for a generation. This quick and decisive action established Reagan's image as a tough president. Congressional and other investigations later determined that the principal cause for the strike was autocratic management by the FAA, which had added to an already stressful employment for air traffic controllers who had the responsibility for safety at the nation's airports. They were trained for that one job and essentially had no other employment options.


  • 1975: Two assassination attempts on President Ford in September.
  • 1977: Newly inaugurated U.S. President Jimmy Carter pardons Vietnam draft dodgers.
  • 1979: After years of unrest, the Shah of Iran leaves the country, and Islamic fundamentalist revolutionaries under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini take control. Later in the year, militants seize control of the U.S. embassy in Teheran and take more than 50 Americans hostage.
  • 1981: In an act calculated to strike one last blow at Carter, Iran releases the 52 remaining U.S. hostages on the day Reagan is inaugurated as the new president.
  • 1981: John David Hinckley, a young man with a history of obsession and mental imbalance, shoots and wounds President Reagan on 30 March. Also seriously wounded are Reagan's press secretary, James Brady (who will be confined to a wheelchair thereafter), and two lawenforcement officers. Six weeks later, on 14 May, a Turkish gunman wounds Pope John Paul II.
  • 1981: Reagan nominates Sandra Day O'Connor of Arizona to become the first female Supreme Court justice.
  • 1981: Pathologists identify a new type of disease, known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
  • 1981: Launch of the first space shuttle, Columbia.
  • 1981: In a storybook wedding witnessed by millions on television, Lady Diana Spencer weds Prince Charles of Great Britain.
  • 1984: As retaliation for the U.S. refusal to participate in the Summer Olympics in Moscow four years earlier, the Soviet Union and other members of the communist bloc stay away from the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
  • 1989: The Ayatollah Khomeini, soon to die himself, puts out a death warrant on author Salman Rushdie for his bookThe Satanic Verses, which flirts with the idea that the prophet Muhammad had doubts about his mission on earth.
  • 1999: Though the House has voted along party lines in December to impeach U.S. President Bill Clinton on two charges—perjury and obstruction of justice—the vigor has gone out of the entire case by the time it reaches the Senate, which acquits him of all charges on 12 February.

Event and Its Context

Prelude to the Strike

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy granted by executive order the right of federal employees to join unions and engage in collective bargaining. By that time, stress was becoming an issue for air traffic controllers as air traffic was on the rise. By the early 1960s the controllers grew further discontented because they were not involved in important decision-making. This inspired a group of New York-based controllers to form the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1968. It started as a professional society but later became a labor union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

In 1967 the FAA became a part of the newly established U.S. Department of Transportation. The FAA had the sole responsibility for developing and maintaining air traffic and employed the controllers. FAA-PATCO relations were adversarial by 1970, when PATCO ordered "Operation Air Safety," which declared that controllers should adhere to established standards for air traffic separation and thus caused air traffic slowdowns. In the early years of PATCO, in response to the FAA's involuntary transfers of union activists, about 3,000 controllers participated in a "sickout" in an effort to get better pay, training, staffing retirement benefits, and reduced work hours.

Under the leadership of union president John Leyden, a relatively peaceful period followed these early actions. During that period, air controllers gained wage and retirement benefits, but demands for improved working conditions were not addressed. In January 1980 PATCO leadership passed to Robert Poli, who was more responsive to the growing dissatisfaction with working conditions among air controllers. Within a few months, the union distributed to members an "educational package" that provided information on how to establish communication networks and committees on security, welfare, and picketing. It also outlined how to prepare for lost wages during a job action. The FAA considered the document a strike plan. PATCO staged a one-day slowdown at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in August 1980 over a wage dispute.

PATCO was one of the few labor unions that had publicly supported presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in the fall of 1980, a clear response to the union's contention that President Jimmy Carter was ignoring serious safety problems that jeopardized the air traffic controller system. Reagan wrote to PATCO President Robert Poli, "You can rest assured 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 work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety."

Some small safety improvements were made at the start of Reagan's term under his newly appointed secretary of the Department of Transportation, Andrew L. (Drew) Lewis. In March 1981 the three-year labor agreement between PATCO and the FAA expired. The provisions of the old contract were allowed to remain with one exception: the provision for immunity under National Aeronautic and Space Administration's (NASA's) Aviation Safety Reporting System, which had been arbitrarily canceled in 1979. The immunity provision allowed controllers and pilots to report errors without risk of penalty so that solutions to problems could be addressed. At about this time the FAA administration changed and J. Lynn Helms, who had a long history in aviation, took over.

Negotiations for a new contract stalled in April 1981, when the Office of Management and Budget opposed PATCO's demands for a 32-hour workweek and a separate federal pay scale for air traffic controllers. In June 1981 a telephone poll of members indicated that less than 80 percent of air traffic controllers at the largest 80 percent of facilities voted to strike (the 80/80 requirement for agreement to strike), so Poli tentatively accepted a "final" offer for a contract from transportation secretary Drew Lewis. The agreement met some of the pay demands but not those for a reduced workweek. The proposed contract also did not address a provision that gave supervisors the right to require controllers to eat lunch on the job during periods of heavy air traffic, an issue that controllers cited as contributing to their stress levels. Meanwhile, the FAA was expanding some safety equipment, such as the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance system, but it was not enough to please controllers.

PATCO Strike Begins

In spite of the results of the June poll, by early July 1981 the PATCO executive board unanimously recommended that controllers reject the contract offer. Hoping this time to get the 80/80 agreement numbers, the union in fact got more than 95 percent of the members to reject the FAA offer. The vote was 13,495 to 616. On 31 July 1981 Robert Poli announced that the union would strike on 3 August unless PATCO's demands were met. The talks failed and the walkout started as schedule at 7.M. eastern standard time. Almost 13,000 of the 17,500 members of PATCO went on strike.

That same day at the White House, President Reagan, who strongly admired Calvin Coolidge, read a handwritten statement to his advisers that he had prepared the night before. Quoting Coolidge, he declared, "There is no right to strike the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime." He said to reporters in the Rose Garden that if the strikers did not return to work within 48 hours, their jobs would be terminated. From his point of view, he was not firing them. If they did not return they were giving up their jobs; 11,359 air traffic controllers were subsequently dismissed. Reagan also gave orders to the FAA to reduce the level of air traffic to what they could handle safely with the supervisors and controllers who were still on the job.

The number of controllers was down about 74 percent, although about 1,300 strikers did return to work, making a total of approximately 2,000 nonstriking air traffic controllers. The FAA had a contingency plan to reduce scheduled flights by 50 percent during peak hours, and it shut down about 60 small airport towers. They also called in 900 military controllers and used 3,000 supervisors as air traffic controllers to supplement those left on the job. To the surprise of almost everyone and the distress of the strikers, the FAA's plan functioned smoothly. With the cooperation of the Air Line Pilots Association, which took on extra monitoring efforts, air traffic soon returned to about 80 percent of normal operation. The FAA also set out to increase the number of trainees at their Oklahoma City air traffic control school's 17-21 week course from 1,500 to 5,500. Within four weeks of 3 August, the FAA had 45,000 applicants for training.

Reagan had the backing of Drew Lewis and FAA administrator J. Lynn Helms for his actions. He also had the legal right to take this action. At the time of the strike, the 1955 government regulation known as 5 U.S.C section 7311 stated that an "individual may not accept or hold a position in the Government of the United States . . . if he . . . participates in a strike, or asserts the right to strike against the government of the United States." The regulation also disqualified persons who engaged in these types of actions from the job for three years. This prompted President Reagan's 9 December 1981 memorandum, which stated, "The Office of Personnel Management has established the position that the former air traffic controllers who were discharged for participating in a strike against the Government initiated on August 3, 1981 shall be debarred from federal employment for a period of three years. Upon deliberation I have concluded that such individuals, despite their strike participation should be permitted to apply for federal employment outside the scope of their former employing agency." Years later, Reagan wrote of the PATCO strike, "I supported unions and the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively, but no president could tolerate an illegal strike by Federal employees."

Consequences of the Strike

An immediate consequence of the strike was the destruction of PATCO. At the start of the strike, a federal court impounded PATCO's $3.5 million strike fund and another federal judge imposed on the union fines totaling $4.75 million. On 4 August federal judge Thomas C. Platt in New York fined PATCO $100,000 an hour for defying a 1970 injunction against striking.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland expressed outrage at President Reagan, who was described as engaging in "unionbusting" by labor leaders. There was some truth to their claims. For years after the PATCO strike unions lost ground. The hiring of permanent replacements for strikers became a common tactic of corporations.

Reagan's decisive action against the strike was legal, and it set the tone for labor-management relations for a generation.

On 22 October 1981 the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified the union. Although an appeals court temporarily stayed the order, it became final on 27 October. In December, Robert Poli resigned as president of PATCO. By July 1983 PATCO declared bankruptcy. PATCO was finished.

On the positive side, the FAA published a 450-page document, the National Airspace System Plan, which outlined an ambitious 20-year blueprint for upgrading the air traffic control system, including replacement of aging and unreliable mainframe computers, consolidation of facilities, addition of Doppler weather radio, and an ambitious plan to install 1,250 microwave landing system sites by the year 2000.

The airlines suffered considerable financial losses during the strike. Some of the major carriers reported losses of $30 million a day at the start of the strike. It was no coincidence that the strike occurred at their busiest time of the year. The airlines were forced to cut back service and lay off workers, and management took pay cuts. Ground transportation services benefited for a while. Media reports that did not support the strike and the inconvenience suffered by the public made the strike unpopular. Most of the reports on the workers' complaints centered on pay increases and demands for a shorter workweek. The FAA offer sounded generous to the general public. Although the air traffic controllers were largely driven to action by stress on the job, few in the media, and therefore in the public, sympathized with them.

Analysis of the Causes of the Strike

Congress, the FAA, and even PATCO investigated the air traffic control strike. In spite of public perception to the contrary, hearings and interviews that followed the strike revealed that the controllers' demands focused on stress and safety as the chief issues. In fairness to the media, some publications did see these issues as part of the reason for striking. On 17 August 1981 Time published an article titled "Turbulence in the Tower" that said PATCO's demand for a 32-hour workweek was "a reduction that the controllers seem to want more than the pay increases. . . . Most PATCO members see this issue as the key to lowering their on-the-job anxieties and enhancing safety."

The deep-rooted underlying cause for the ongoing tensions between the air traffic controllers and the FAA was frustration with labor-management relations, a frustration that had been recognized as far back as 1968. In April 1968 the secretary of transportation commissioned the Corson Committee Report. The report, issued in January 1970, cited significant employee morale problems among the air traffic controllers and indicated that the problems might be serious enough to affect public safety. The report put most of the blame on the FAA for poor management techniques.

Another report issued in 1972 cited the autocratic management style of the FAA as the source of the serious job stress among air traffic controllers. Morale became worse in 1979 when FAA administrator Langhorne Bond arbitrarily terminated the immunity provision that had been included in the 1978 three-year FAA/PATCO contract. The immunity program allowed air traffic controllers, pilots, and administrators to share information so each could learn from common errors and not fear retribution. An outside disinterested committee under NASA processed these reports and circulated the data as a learning tool. The impact of the termination of the immunity provision was that incidents were seldom reported.

In addition to eliminating the protection of immunity, the FAA demanded that air traffic controllers handle higher traffic loads than were allowed by their own standards. When the controllers complained, the FAA changed the standards instead of hiring more controllers. In addition, during this same period the FAA hired additional managers. Some described FAA managers as militaristic, and many of them did in fact come from the military. The lack of management training for FAA supervisors as well as a management philosophy of top-down control further added to the friction between controllers and management.

Out of the Ashes: A New Union Forms

Following the demise of PATCO, the air traffic controllers made several efforts to organize a new bargaining unit. Finally, in September 1986 delegates ratified a constitution for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). They also signed an affiliation agreement with the Marine Engineers'

Beneficial Association (MEBA). PATCO had been first affiliated with MEBA. In January 1998 NATCA sent a request for a national charter to join the AFL-CIO. The executive council of the AFL-CIO voted unanimously to accept NATCA as a direct affiliate of the union. In 1998, after a year of negotiating, the union and the FAA signed a five-year, $1.6 billion collective bargaining agreement. The contract was accepted by 92 percent of the union members.

Key Players

Dole, Elizabeth H. (1936-): Appointed 7 February 1983 by President Reagan to succeed Drew Lewis as secretary of transportation. She served until 30 September 1987. Dole had been a White House assistant for public liaison at the time she was nominated for the Department of Transportation position.

Helms, J. Lynn (1925-): Helms was the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from 22 April 1981 to 31 January 1984. He had a long history working in the aviation industry prior to his appointment as the head of FAA. Among his prior positions, he had been chairman of the board of Piper Aircraft Corporation and president of the Norden Division of United Technologies; he also had been a fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics Association.

Lewis, Andrew L. ("Drew," 1931-): Lewis was secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation from 23 January 1981 to 1 February 1983. He worked with the FAA to draft the National Airspace System Plan to modernize air traffic control after the PATCO strike.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge.



Reagan, Ronald. Ronald Reagan: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.


Magnuson, R. et al. "Turbulence in the Tower," Time, 17August 1981.


A Brief History of Federal Agencies Regulating Aviation.Appendix A, FAA Regulations [cited 26 July 2002]. <>

"Detailed Chronology, 1926-96." FAA History Information and Resources [cited 26 July 2002].

Pels, Rebecca. "The Pressures of PATCO: Strikes and Stress in the 1980s." Essays in History 37, Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, 1995 [cited 26 July 2002].

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, University of Texas."Statement on Federal Employment of Discharged Air Traffic Controllers," 9 December 1981 [cited 26 July 2002]. 1981/120981a.htm.

Additional Resources


Nordlund, Willard J. Silent Skies: The Air Traffic Controllers' Strike. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group Incorporated, 1998.

Shostak, Arthur, and David Skocik. The Air Controllers Controversy: Lessons from the PATCO Strike. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1986.—M. C. Nagel