The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization or PATCO was a United States trade union that operated from 1968 until its decertification in 1981 following a strike that was broken by the Reagan Administration. The 1981 strike and defeat of PATCO has been called “one of the most important events in late twentieth century U.S. labor history.”
On August 3, 1981, the union declared a strike, seeking better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour workweek. In addition, PATCO no longer wanted to be included within the civil service clauses that had haunted it for decades. In doing so, the union violated a law — 5 U.S.C. (Supp. III 1956) 118p. — that banned strikes by government unions. 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 of 1947. Only 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers returned to work. Subsequently, Reagan 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. (This ban was later rescinded by President Bill Clinton in 1993.) 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 nonparticipating controllers, supervisors, staff personnel, some nonrated 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 from its right to represent workers by the Federal Labor Relations Authority on October 22, 1981. The decision was appealed.
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.
Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (1968) on Wikipedia.