PATCO strike: 1981
The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike of 1981 marked the end of a long period of struggle by American workers against employer demands for increased productivity that began in the late 1960s.

The defeat of the strike and the mass firings of controllers by President Ronald Reagan legitimized and encouraged private employers to embark on an all out assault on labor.

PATCO

Organized in 1968, PATCO engaged in a series of job actions against their Federal Aviation Administration management mainly around the issue of workload.

Despite court orders against these concerted activities, the FAA did not impose discipline on the controllers for the job actions.

Instead, Congress accelerated the installation of automated systems, reopened the air traffic controller training academy in Oklahoma City, began hiring air traffic controllers at an increasing rate, and raised salaries to help attract and retain controllers.

Ironically, PATCO supported Ronald Reagan for president in the 1980 election because of the poor labor relations with the FAA under President Jimmy Carter.

The Strike

At 7 a.m. on August 3, 1981, the union declared a strike, seeking better working conditions, better pay, and a 32-hour workweek (a four-day week and a eight-hour day combined). In addition, PATCO wanted to be excluded from the civil service clauses that it had long disliked.

In striking, the union violated 5 U.S.C. (Supp. III 1956) 118p (now 5 U.S.C. § 7311), which prohibits strikes by federal government employees. Ronald Reagan declared the PATCO strike a "peril to national safety" and ordered them back to work under the terms of the Taft-Hartley Act.

Only 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers returned to work.

Subsequently, at 10:55 a.m., Reagan included the following in a statement to the media from the Rose Garden of the White House: "Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees, a sworn affidavit, when they accepted their jobs: 'I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the Government of the United States or any agency thereof.'"

He then demanded those remaining on strike return to work within 48 hours, otherwise their jobs would be forfeited. At the same time, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis organized for replacements and started contingency plans.

By prioritizing and cutting flights severely, and even adopting methods of air traffic management that PATCO had previously lobbied for, the government was initially able to have 50% of flights available.

On August 5, following the PATCO workers' refusal to return to work, Reagan fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored the order, and banned them from federal service for life.

In the wake of the strike and mass firings, the FAA was faced with the task of hiring and training enough controllers to replace those that had been fired, a hard problem to fix as, at the time, it took three years in normal conditions to train a new controller.

They were replaced initially with non-participating controllers, supervisors, staff personnel, some non-rated personnel, and in some cases by controllers transferred temporarily from other facilities. Some military controllers were also used until replacements could be trained.

The FAA had initially claimed that staffing levels would be restored within two years; however, it would take closer to ten years before the overall staffing levels returned to normal.

PATCO was decertified by the Federal Labor Relations Authority on October 22, 1981.

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 civil service ban on the remaining strike participants was lifted by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Effects of the defeat

In 2003, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, speaking on the legacy of Ronald Reagan, noted:

“Perhaps the most important, and then highly controversial, domestic initiative was the firing of the air traffic controllers in August 1981. The President invoked the law that striking government employees forfeit their jobs…”

“President Reagan prevailed, as you know, but far more importantly his action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.”

President Reagan's director of the United States Office of Personnel Management at the time, Donald J. Devine, argued:

"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."

Just as important, it sent a message to American workers that even when there are not good alternatives for replacement workers, companies will fire strikers and take the short term economic distress that it will cause. In short, the message was “it doesn’t pay to fight back or strike.”

--Partially excerpted from Wikipedia
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