MIAMI – Today in Aviation, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) trade union was decertified by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. The decision came following an illegal strike that was ultimately broken by the Reagan Administration in 1981.

PATCO was established in 1968 with the assistance of the lawyer and Pilot F. Lee Bailey. On July 3 of that same year, PATCO declared “Operation Air Safety” in which all members were ordered to comply with the defined separation standards for aircraft.

In February 1981, PATCO and the FAA began new contract negotiations. Citing safety issues, PATCO called for a shortened 32-hour workweek, a US$10,000 pay increase for all air traffic controllers, and a better retirement benefits package. However, talks failed rapidly and trouble ensued. 

Robert E. Poli, center, president of the controllers’ union, at a courthouse during the 1981 strike. Photo courtesy: George Tames/The New York Times

A Negotiation Rife with Disagreements


In June, the FAA proposed a new three-year contract of US$105m in raises to be paid in 11.4% increases over the next three years, more than twice the amount provided to other federal employees. However, since the deal did not include a reduced workweek or early retirement, PATCO declined the offer. 

At 7:00 am on August 3, 1981, the union called a strike, demanding better working conditions, better wages with a cumulative increase of US$600m over three years compared to FAA’s US$40m offer, and a 32-hour workweek.

In addition, PATCO decided to be exempt from the civil service clauses that it had long been opposed to. In striking, the union was in violation of Title 5 of the United States Code (now 5 U.S.C. § 7311).

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport – entrance and control tower

Effects of the PATCO Strike


During the strike, thousands of travelers tried to cope, as luggage-carrying passengers were left stranded at airports. According to a Washington Post report from August 4, 1981, you could see the longest lines in years at train and bus depots.

Most of the passengers were extremely disappointed, and even those who felt sympathy for the controllers were angry because their plans had been interrupted. “I hate [air traffic controllers],” Edna Robinson was quoted by the TWP while she was waiting for a train at Union Station, where lines at Amtrak ticket counters were rarely shorter than 30 passengers yesterday. “I sympathize with them, but I still hate them.”

Washington’s busiest airport, National (DCA), which would later be named after the president, recorded a 50% reduction in total flights (scheduled airlines and general aviation) by mid-afternoon. Baltimore Washington International (BWI) announced a 32% reduction, but Keith Merlin, a spokesperson at Dulles Airport (IAD), said there were only modest reductions.

President Reagan’s remarks and ultimatum on August 3, 1981.

A Tough Decision for a New President


President Reagan faced a tough challenge as to how to deal with the PATCO; the federal unions were literary in their teens and he was only months into his presidency. President Reagan had served many terms as president of the Screen Actor Guild, the AFL-CIO union. The right of private employees to unionize was important to him.

According to the National Archives, the PATCO strike tested Reagan’s strong belief in private-sector unions as instrumental to capitalism against his similarly strong belief in the value of keeping government small and effective. However, while the Federal Labor Relations Act (FLRA) of 1978 guaranteed certain union benefits, it prevented Federal workers from striking.

In the end, Reagan argued that not only were federal workers’ unions inherently and constitutionally distinct from private unions but that a firm stand had to be taken in order to completely enforce the FLRA strike ban. As soon as the strike began, Reagan addressed the nation in the Rose Garden and issued his ultimatum: Striking air traffic controllers had 48 hours to get back to work or else be fired.

Chicago ATCs on strike. Photo: wiki Commons

Fallout of the Ultimatum


After PATCO disobeyed the federal court injunction ordering an end to the strike and a return to work, a federal judge ruled that union leaders, including PATCO President Robert Poli, were in contempt of the court, and the union was ordered to pay a fine of $100,000. Additionally, certain members were ordered to pay a fine of $1,000 for each day that its members were on strike. 

Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis organized for replacements and implemented contingency plans. By prioritizing and cutting flights severely (about 7,000) and also implementing air traffic management strategies that PATCO had previously supported, the government was initially in a position to have 50% of the flights available.

On 5 August, following the reluctance of the PATCO staff to return to work, Reagan kept his word and dismissed 11,345 air traffic controllers who had violated the order and forbade them from federal service for life.

On October 22, just two days after the International Day of the Air Traffic Controller, PATCO is decertified by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Later, new air traffic controllers, recruited after the strike, would form a new organization to represent them—the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Photo: Wiki Commons

A Brief Rundown of Federal Workers’ Rights and the FAA


A variety of executive orders and regulations came into play in the Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton administrations surrounding the right of federal workers to unionize and to bargain as a collective entity. To begin, President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10988 (Task Force on Employee-Management Relations in the Federal Service) was replaced by President Nixon’s Executive Order 11491.

Before Kennedy’s 1962 Executive Order, federal workers did not have the same guaranteed right to unionize as those from the private sector. Executive Order 10988 granted Federal workers the freedom to join, establish, or assist labor unions. It established a three-tiered recognition system: exclusive representation, formal recognition, and informal recognition.

Nixon’s Executive Order attempted to guarantee these rights, to extend them in certain respects, and to set up the National Federal Labor Relations Council. President Jimmy Carter pursued further strengthening of these guarantees by Congress, which led to the passage of the FLRA.

On June 19, 1987, NATCA is certified as the sole bargaining unit for air traffic controllers hired by the FAA. On August 12, 1993, President Clinton terminates the ban on the re-hiring of any air traffic controller who went on strike in 1981. (As of 2006, some 850 PATCO strikers had been rehired by the FAA.)

Then, on October 3, 1996, the US Congress adopts the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act, which codifies NATCA’s right to participate in collective bargaining with the FAA on salaries and personnel matters.

Finally, on October 5, 2018, a new FAA Reauthorization was signed into law, extending FAA’s funding and authorities through Fiscal Year 2023. 


Featured image: Pope Field Air Traffic Control Tower. Photo: Wiki Commons. Sources: The Reagan Library Education Blog, The Washington Post, U.S. FEDERAL LABOR RELATIONS AUTHORITY and NPR.

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