Reagan fires 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, Aug. 5, 1981

Reagan fires 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, Aug. 5, 1981

Aug 5, 2017 - On this day in 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who had ignored his order to return to work. The sweeping mass firing of federal employees slowed commercial air travel, but it did not cripple the system as the strikers had forecast.

Two days earlier, nearly 13,000 controllers walked out after contract talks with the Federal Aviation Administration collapsed. As a result, some 7,000 flights across the country were canceled on that day at the peak of the summer travel season.

Robert Poli, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), sought an across-the-board annual wage increase of $10,000 for the controllers, whose pay ranged from $20,462 to $49,229 a year. He also sought a reduction of their five-day, 40-hour workweek to a four-day, 32-hour workweek. The FAA made a $40 million counteroffer, far short of the $770 million package that the union sought.

Reagan branded the strike illegal. He threatened to fire any controller who failed to return to work within 48 hours. Federal judges levied fines of $1 million a day against the union.

In 1955, Congress had made such strikes punishable by fines or a one-year jail term — a law the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 1971.

To the chagrin of the strikers, the FAA’s contingency plans worked. Some 3,000 supervisors joined 2,000 nonstriking controllers and 900 military controllers in manning the commercial airport towers. Before long, about 80 percent of flights were operating normally. Air freight remained virtually unaffected.

In carrying out his threat, Reagan also imposed a lifetime ban on rehiring the strikers. In October 1981, the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified PATCO.

Historian Joseph A. McCartin concluded that the 1981 strike and defeat of PATCO was “one of the most important events” in late 20th century U.S. labor history. Donald J. Devine, the director of the Office of Personnel Management at the time, said “When the president said no ... American business leaders were given a lesson in managerial leadership that they could not and did not ignore.

“Many private-sector executives have told me that they were able to cut the fat from their organizations and adopt more competitive work practices because of what the government did in those days. I would not be surprised if these unseen effects of this private-sector shakeout under the inspiration of the president were as profound in influencing the recovery that occurred as the formal economic and fiscal programs.”

Some former striking controllers were allowed to reapply after 1986 and were rehired; they and their replacements are now represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which was organized in 1987 and had no connection with PATCO. The ban on the remaining strike participants was lifted by President Bill Clinton in 1993.


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