Years of conflict between ATC management and controllers
Union/Poli expected public’s reaction to support the workers
The strike failed
The labor contract between FAA and PATCO expired in March 1981. Formal contract negotiations had begun in February, but those ended after 37 negotiating sessions. Informal talks, however, continued until June 17, when PATCO rejected a Reagan Administration contract proposal. After the failure of last minute negotiations, on August 3, approximately 12,300 members of the 15,000-member PATCO went on strike, grounding about 35 percent of the nation’s 14,200 daily commercial flights. Approximately four hours after the strike began, President Reagan issued the strikers a firm ultimatum – return to work within 48 hours or face permanent dismissal. After expiration of the grace period, FAA fired approximately 11,400 controllers. Most of those fired appealed the action, and FAA eventually reinstated 440 as a result of their appeals.
The strike and dismissals drastically curtailed FAA’s controller workforce. To keep the airways open, approximately 3,000 air traffic controller supervisory personnel worked at controlling traffic. FAA assigned assistants to support the controllers, and accelerated the hiring and training of new air traffic personnel. Military controllers arrived at FAA facilities soon after the strike began, and about 800 were ultimately assigned to the agency.
In the aftermath of the strike, PATCO disbanded, and the controllers remained without a union until June 19, 1987, when the National Air Traffic Controllers Association became the exclusive representative of terminal and center controllers.
During this time, FAA electronics technicians unionized. On December 29, 1981, the Professional Airway Systems Specialists (PASS) became the exclusive representative of the technicians. FAA and PASS concluded their first national labor agreement during fiscal year 1984.
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.”
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