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This Day in Labor History: August 3, 1981

[ 128 ] August 3, 2012 |

On August 3, 1981, the nation’s air traffic controllers went on strike in arguably the greatest disaster in the history of American organized labor. Ronald Reagan’s busting of the union led to a new period of corporate anti-union attacks and served as a precursor to the current Republican-led campaign against public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and across the country.

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association was founded in 1968 and quickly proved to be an important and active trade union of public sector employees. This was a period of rapid growth for public sector unions, reaching nearly 40% of public workers by 1980. The air traffic controllers were mostly working-class people who had acquired their skill in the military. For them, the union meant a middle-class lifestyle without attending college. These people were living the idealized American Dream, the one that encourages us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. But of course, the employers don’t really want people to follow through on that mythology en masse, for doing so means understanding the need to wrest power from the bosses.

PATCO had a pretty militant membership and strong leadership. But with striking by federal employees illegal, their options for workplace actions were limited. In 1969, PATCO workers implemented safety rules that maintained large distances between aircraft, which effectively proved to be a slowdown. In 1970, PATCO engaged in a sick out to protest understaffing and stress, leading the government to hire more air traffic controllers and increase modernization efforts. But with public sector strikes illegal, the air traffic controllers had limited options to achieve its aims. Moreover, PATCO had a very bad relationship with Jimmy Carter. So in 1980, the union endorsed Ronald Reagan for the presidency. Reagan, a former union leader who had led the Actors Guild on a strike in 1952, said favorable things about their union despite his conservatism.

Supporting Reagan didn’t exactly pay off for PATCO.

On August 3, 1981, PATCO went on strike for better pay, improved working conditions, and a 32-hour work week. The union wanted an across the board $10,000 pay raise and fully funded retirement after 20 years. It was an audacious set of demands that would have cost taxpayers $770 million. The government came back with significantly less, but still a shorter work week and a 10% pay increase for a few workers. 95% of the membership rejected the deal and authorized a strike.

But it was illegal for government workers to go out on strike. Congress passed a law in 1955 that made strikes government workers punishable by a year in prison, which the Supreme Court upheld in 1971. Ronald Reagan, flexing his muscles as a new president who represented an invigorated right-wing movement, decided to repay PATCO for its support in 1980 by destroying the union. Reagan used the Taft-Hartley Act to force the workers back on the job, but the large majority stayed out. The strike aimed to cripple the nation’s flight capacity, but through automation and quickly sending in scabs, flights were reduced only by about 50%. When the union refused to go back to work, Reagan fired the 11,345 strikers. He did not have to do that. The law did not require the firing of striking public sector workers and no one expected Reagan to do this. He also banned them from government employment for life. Finally, Bill Clinton rescinded that ban in 1993, but only about 800 returned to government employment. That October, the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified the union. This was probably the greatest disaster in the history of American labor.

Regardless of the wisdom of the air traffic controllers going on strike, Reagan’s busting of their union had widespread implications. It invigorated the latent anti-union sentiment in the country. According to Alan Greenspan, Reagan is to be lauded for his actions precisely because it emboldened private employers to treat their own workers as expendable and take a harsher stance against organized labor. And it’s not like everyday Americans came out in support of the PATCO cause: in the weeks after the strike began, 45,000 people applied to become air traffic controllers.

Organized labor certainly saw the threat to its future and held what they called Solidarity Day on September 19 that drew about 250,000 people, mostly organized union members, to Washington. But even such a large rally was pretty easy for Reagan to ignore, particularly with him receiving a lot of support from his base and the more conservative parts of the country. And what does such a march do anyway? Not much. The AFL-CIO sent out letters to its unions banning them from engaging in any secondary strikes or more radical actions. From a legal perspective that makes a lot of sense, but from a strategy perspective it was pretty disastrous because it showed the labor federation completely unable to mobilize effectively in response to this threat. Moreover, AFL-CIO Lane Kirkland explicitly told Reagan he wouldn’t do anything to damage him and said he opposed “anything that would represent punishing, injuring or inconveniencing the public at large for the sins or transgression of the Reagan administration.”

Great leadership Lane.

From the perspective of air safety and cost effectiveness, busting the union could have been destroyed Reagan. Air traffic safety was severely compromised; even Reagan’s own supporters worried that plane crashes would result from his actions. It took 10 years for the government to train enough workers to restaff the air towers at the level of 1981. The cost of this was billions more than the workers demanded in 1981.

Yet for Reagan, as for conservatives so often, fiscal discipline only mattered if it served his political aims. Reagan’s larger goal of crushing American organized labor took precedence and was worth the risk to him. The cost of the strike didn’t matter so much as American forget about these things quickly. That he was willing to put the lives of American flyers at risk in order to score political points shows his moral monstrosity. But it paid off big time for Reagan. Even at labor’s peak, a large percentage of the American population hated the sheer idea of labor unions and rarely has union bashing cost American politicians at the polls. Reagan wrapped himself in his labor union past for the duration of the action, lamenting that he had to take such actions against labor and that he only did so because the strike was illegal and threatened public safety. Reagan also showed his respect for the law and public safety later in his presidency in the nation of Nicaragua.

The airplanes did not crash (though they certainly could have) and Reagan gained his desired reputation for toughness. Both American labor and the Soviets took note of his stand. Public sector unions never again took such an aggressive bargaining stance toward the federal government.

There’s plenty of places one can mark where American labor began its decline: Taft-Hartley. The expulsion of the communists from the unions. The Border Industrialization Project. But right at the top of this depressing list is the PATCO strike. Even today, labor has not recovered from this and still doesn’t have an effective strategy for dealing with employers’ uncompromising union-busting tactics.

The definitive account of the PATCO strike is Joseph McCartin’s recent book. I have only read excerpts but it comes highly recommended.

Today, the air traffic controllers are again unionized in the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, but obviously the militancy is not the same as in 1981.

This is the 36th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Comments (128)

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  1. Matthew Stevens says:

    in the weeks after the strike began, 45,000 people applied to become air traffic controllers

    The strike aimed to cripple the nation’s flight capacity, but through automation and quickly sending in scabs, flights were reduced only by about 50%.

    Aren’t these two related?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      No–being an ATC is a training-intensive process. Those 45,000 people were basically applying to start the process of going to the school.

    • Richard Birdsall says:

      I was a controller who lived through the strike. The FAA had enough warning of the strike to pad their non-union supervisory ranks and admin ranks with qualified controllers. In some facilities they supplemented FAA controllers with military controllers. Some retired controllers returned to work as well.

      Air traffic was limited for some time as those who stayed on the job acclimated to the new conditions and traffic loads. The 10,000 or so replacement controllers were hired over some period of time, the first group not ready to control traffic for more than 2 years after joining the FAA.

  2. Cody says:

    This seems a very relevant article now. Reaganism is something current Republicans tend to believe in.

    The way he handled the issue lines up perfectly with current Republican strategies of being fiscally conservative, until spending the money somehow helps them.

    Also, maybe people who think you should support Romney because Obama isn’t far-enough left should learn what happens to labor. The Right is there to crush you, no matter how much you pay them.

    • Barry says:

      “The way he handled the issue lines up perfectly with current Republican strategies of being fiscally conservative, until spending the money somehow helps them. ”

      I disagree with this, and with Erik’s original comment.

      The right is has not been fiscally conservative since before Reagan. They act like it, but only when it’s not money going into their own pockets.

      I can’t recall any significant issue where the GOP had to actually sacrifice due to ‘the money’s not there’.

  3. Richard says:

    The claim that no one expected Reagan to fire the strikers is wrong. Reagan said he would do that if they struck. He did what he said he would do. A number of people didn’t believe he would follow through with his promise but they were wrong. I followed the controversy closely back then and fully expected Reagan to follow through with his promise.

    Also, the inconvenience to the air travelling public was minimal. Within two weeks, all flights were operating as usual. I fully agree that the PATCO strike was a huge blow to organized labor but it was a colossal error by the union which misread Reagan and grossly overestimated its own power and popularity . The demand for a 32 hour work week ensured that it would lose the support of most other union members.

  4. Bernard says:

    the beginning of the end for the Middle Class.and the Democrats sat by and helped the Republicans/and St. Ronnie destroyed the gains of the Middle class.
    was an amazing time. jealousy of the successes of the Unions and the “other” is part of the success of the present day Elites/Republican/Democrats, as we see today in Wisconsin. divide and conquer shows how completely Elites rule America today.

    and the Unions helped in thier own destruction.the comment by Lane Kirkland, for example, as well as the buying off of other union leaders at that time, that was so amazing to watch. suicide for one/the unions, meant sucide for the rest of the working classes.

    but, but. Republicans are true to their aims. DemocRATs have since St. Reagan been eager to help the Republicans. so we reap what we sow.

    3rd world banana republic status.

    • Richard says:

      Not sure what the Democrats could have done. Reagan had won the presidency in a landslide and the Republicans controlled the House and Senate.

      The strike was clearly illegal under the law and Reagan’s firing of the workers, although not mandatory, was absolutely permitted by law. (The union’s challanges to the firing were laughed out of court). PATCO had not coordinated their action with either the AFL/CIO or with the Democrats.

      PATCO was never that popular a union to begin with. Very small, mostly ex military men, with wages two or three times what the average union salary was. Plus it had supported Reagan in the election, pissing off the AFL/CIO leadership. For a union like that to assume the role of the militant vanguard was a disaster in the making.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Republicans controlled the House and Senate.

        Well, no, although I think it’s fair to say conservatives controlled both Houses.

        • Bernard says:

          if you support Republicans you cut your own throat. being a minority means yo can stop any and all actions. like the last few years with the minority in the Senate. pulling punches is something Democrats don’t do. have you been watching the Republicans inthe Ca. Senate.

          a minority that stops any and all change it doesnt approve of. throwing sand into the machinery to stop everything works, if you see how effective the Republican minority in Ca Senate and US Senate.

          that is somethingthe Democrats have never ever done.

          power goes to those that use it.

          • The Democrats think that it is important for the machinery of the state to function.

            The Republican does not.

            It’s a lot easier to throw sand into the gears if you don’t actually care about the thing ceasing to work at all.

            • Barry says:

              “The Democrats think that it is important for the machinery of the state to function.

              The Republican does not.

              It’s a lot easier to throw sand into the gears if you don’t actually care about the thing ceasing to work at all.”

              Except when it comes to that sweeeeeet, sweeeeeeeet pork. The GOP love government subsidies as much as Democrats.

              • Ultimately, though, that’s just the other side of the anti-government coin.

                If you define all government activity as inherently corrupt, then why not use it purely as a trough?

                I think, and you think, that there is an enormous moral difference between collecting taxes and using the money for actual public programs, and collecting taxes and using the money to stuff your pockets.

                But if you don’t see any moral difference, then there’s no reason to restrain yourself.

        • Richard says:

          You’re right. They controlled the Senate but not the House (but had picked up 35 seats in the House in the 1980 election).

        • John says:

          While O’Neill did basically let the conservatives pass what they wanted to, I’d assume that he could have prevented conservative measures from passing the House if he’d been determined to do so.

          • Richard says:

            But, of course, the decision to fire the workers had nothing to do with Congress. I don’t know if Congress could have overturned it but even if it could, the Republican Senate would never have gone along with that. O’Neill and the House were simply out of the loop when it came to Reagan’s decision to fire the workers who had engaged in an illegal strike. PATCO engaged in a very risky strategy which backfired in every possible way and with consequences for the labor movement in general which they never contemplated.

    • rea says:

      the Democrats sat by and failed to rescue a union that endorsed the other party in the previous election.

      This was the end of the era in which the unions broke with the Democrats over Vietnam and civil rights. Other unions had endorsed Reagan, Ford and Nixon, like the Teamsters. Even the AFL-CIO had refused to endorse the Democrat in 1972. Coalition is a two-way street.

      With the PATCO strike, unions began to see the consequences of enthusiastically participating in dragging the country to the right, but by then it was too late.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        “This was the end of the era in which the unions broke with the Democrats over Vietnam and civil rights. Other unions had endorsed Reagan, Ford and Nixon, like the Teamsters. Even the AFL-CIO had refused to endorse the Democrat in 1972. Coalition is a two-way street.”

        This is massively overstated, although a common quasi-myth. I think like 3 unions in the entire AFL-CIO endorsed Reagan in 1980. Yes Meany didn’t endorse McGovern in 72 and that was really bad. And yes the building trades in New York beat up some hippies. But it’s a gigantic overstatement to say that unions were not still a central part of the Democratic coalition during the 1970s.

        “The unions” most certainly did not break with the Democrats.

      • Hogan says:

        The Teamsters really are outliers among the larger unions (often literally–they were disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO for most of the ’70s and ’80s).

  5. David M. Nieporent says:

    These people were living the idealized American Dream, the one that encourages us to pull ourselves up by our



    Fixed it for you.

    • Hogan says:

      Because working in the public sector is exactly like welfare.

    • Jeremy says:

      Mr. Nieporent seems to think people who join the military and use the skills they learn to improve their post-military life are just taking advantage of hardworking taxpayers.

      Oh, and that they should spend longer hours on the job. Because that’s exactly how I want the air traffic controller guiding my flight: overworked and underpaid.

      • Malaclypse says:

        Because that’s exactly how I want the air traffic controller guiding my flight: overworked and underpaid.

        If the market wanted alert air traffic controllers, the market would provide them. Why do you hate America?

      • David M. Nieporent says:

        But of course they weren’t overworked; even Loomis is forced to admit that it didn’t actually affect safety, even when the government had to replace them all at once. Just because a special interest group lobbies for more taxpayer money doesn’t mean that it actually needed it.

    • Cody says:

      I agree. I drove to work today. On a road. I didn’t directly pay for this road. I’m sorry I’m such a moocher. The taxpayer’s carrying me to work again!

      I assume in your wonderful life, you never patronize taxpayers’ utilities. Otherwise, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how much of a hypocrite you are if you use a road, subway, train, police officer, fireman, or the internet. After all, the internet in the U.S. was originally developed by DARPA taxpayer money. You’re mooching off those taxpayers’ wonderful invention again!!

    • Furious Jorge says:

      It never fails. Every time I think you couldn’t possibly be more of an asshole, you go and prove me wrong.

    • rea says:

      Mr. Nieporent should stop freeloading off the taxpayers–he should go out and build his own internet if he wants to post online.

    • Anonymous says:

      “…by our taxpayers’ bootstraps.”

      When I buy groceries, the money I pay for them stops being my money and becomes the grocery store’s money

      When I sell my labor to the company I work for, the pay I get is mine, it isn’t the shareholders money

      When a public sector worker earns a pay check, that paycheck is his, not the taxpayers
      You can tell because the check has his name on it

    • rhino says:

      David, you are without question the biggest asshat ever to comment here.

      Just thought you should know that you inspire nothing but contempt, derision, and mockery. You are not respected, you’re not considered a worthy adversary, nor a useful sparring partner. Hell, davey-boy, you don’t even make an adequate punching bag.

      Quit fouling the discourse. Go away.

  6. David Kaib says:

    A couple of things, based on my recollection from McCartin’s book.

    PATCO thought it has a deal during the campaign – endorsing Reagan was still probably foolish, but the decision wasn’t based only Reagan’s past and his rhetoric. Ultimately, the two sides couldn’t agree on what the deal entailed.

    It’s true that striking for federal workers had long been illegal. Firing striking workers and hiring of replacement workers was all legal too. But hiring replacement workers had been legal for public workers always, and for non-government workers since 1937. Yet it was fairly rare for non-government workers even in 1980 and rare for government workers (this came up more commonly at the local level, and hiring replacement workers began fitfully during the fiscal crisis of the 70s). Hiring of replacement workers in the corporate sector really begins after PATCO, because Reagan’s action helped legitimate it, even though from a legal authority perspective this was unnecessary. Point being that norms shape how rules operate.

    McCartin also suggests that union busting wasn’t Reagan’s goal coming in, but developed during the battle. That is, once he faced with their demands and an ultimatum, they felt he had to stand up to the union, in part to look tough for the Soviets.

    Good post.

  7. TN says:

    One thing you don’t mention is that the American economy was in the midst of a severe recession, about as harsh as what we recently had although not as long-lived. (That’s primarily because Reagan was willing to ramp up government spending to fight the recession, unlike the socialist Obama.)

    That explains why (a) there wasn’t a lot of sympathy for the striking workers, and (b) why there were 45,000 people eager to take their jobs. I don’t claim to know anything about labor tactics, but in retrospect, it looks like a poor time to call a strike.

  8. Bernard says:

    Reagan was the symbol of the “HE MAN” who stood up to the “communist” unions as well as Communist USSR.

    perfect PR. a tool for the Republicans to use, which they did after years of planning and establishing all the Right wing foundations, with money from Mellon, Koch et al.

    Heritage institute, American Enterprise Inst., Brookings, the list is endless. set up after the Democrats took down Nixon. Payback folks, is hell.

    Reagan sold us Americans out to the Elites, managed by the Republicans, like Tom Delay, Phill Gramm and the rest. read your history, if you dare.

    not a pretty sight to watch St. Ronnie sell us out to the highest bidders. proved taht nothing is sacred. everything now has a price. can be bought and sold, like clean water, air, and the land we live on.

    Reagan helped “sell” us out. Profit before people. works everytime. see Mussolini, HItler, Stalin, Mao. Reagan’s co-horts in crime.

  9. Greg says:

    I’d agree that this was a catastrophic event for labor, and that the parts of McCartin’s book I’ve read are brilliant (and expected no less). But this downturn started earlier, with the “centrist” Democrats and the Carter administration. It was Carter and the Democrats that forced the UAW to make contractual concessions in order for Chrysler to receive its “bailout.” During the 1981 round of negotiations, the UAW was forced to make similar concessions to both GM and Ford so the could maintain a “competitive balace” with the smallest of the then Big Three. And it was under Carter and “centrist” Democrats that both the airline and trucking industries were deregulated–both to the detriment of workers employed in those industries.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      There’s a lot of places where we can pinpoint the downfall of labor.

      • Sev says:

        But I think this is a logical turning point. Maybe just my personal rant, but I really think this was the point at which labor’s leadership failed- Lane Kirkland in particular. they could have threatened a general strike to at least show strength, demand the patco workers be reinstated, though fined, make clear to Reagan and others that labor was not dead yet.

      • Joseph Slater says:

        In grad school, after reading Montgomery’s “Fall of the House of Labor,” some friends and I used to try to pick post-civil war dates in U.S. history when labor *wasn’t* falling, at least in the opinion of some historian or other. It’s actually not so easy. . . .

    • Richard says:

      But airline deregulation, I would argue, was a good thing. Yeah, it didn’t help the people that worked on the planes but it helped the public at large to a great degree – more flights to more places and much cheaper fares. Before deregulation, the airline industry was pretty much a controlled monopoly where the small group of airlines, in connection with the regulators, froze the market from competitors and severely restricted the services that could be offered. Few flights, high fares. For the people who worked at those airlines, it was a good thing. Good wages, fairly strong unions for the most part (except for Delta which was non-union but paid commeasurate wages and benefits), job security because of lack of competition. Not so good for anyone outside the industry.

      Supporting deregulation or not brings up one of those perennial questions in the labor wars. What do you do when the interests of the workers that have jobs in a controlled industry – like the airlines – conflict with the interests of the public at large (which would benefit from the expansion of the industry)? For the airlines, it was inevitable that there would be an end to regulation and an expansion of the industry to the benefit of the population as a whole.

      • Malaclypse says:

        it helped the public at large to a great degree – more flights to more places and much cheaper fares.

        Without disputing the thrust of your argument, you did leave off the “and at much much worse standards of service, and (somewhat arguably) lower standards of safety” part.

        • Richard says:

          I fully agree with the service part (but I believe airline safety hasn’t been adversely affected by deregulation). But theres a tradeoff. Do you want fewer flights, much better service and much higher fares or lousy service, frequent flights and cheap fares? Most people choose the latter. (My first wife was a flight attendant for a while way back in the day so our family had the best of both worlds – free first class flights to almost everywhere when first class really meant something – roast beef carved at your seat, upstair lounges on 747 flights, etc. I miss those days especially when I’m shoved like sardines in a 737 crossing the country with no food on a five hour flight and after having to go through the horror of airport security.)

          • Dilan Esper says:

            Yeah, airline deregulation was a very good thing for poor and working class people who can now afford to fly. It harmed the professional classes who could always afford to fly but now get lousy service in coach. (It didn’t affect the rich much, as they could and can fly in private planes.)

            As I do in just about any fight between the poor and the middle class, I think the interests of the poor are more important.

            • Ed Furey says:

              Perhaps deregulation led to lower fares, but the more likely answer is better technology. Planes could carry more passengers more quickly, meaning more flights a day and tripling carrying capacity when the jets arrived in the late 50s and 60s. The only way to fill those seats was to drop the prices.

              • Richard says:

                I think thats mistaken. It used to be there was no competition on routes. Therefore no incentive to lower fares. Deregulation was a huge factor in lower fares, better technology much less important especially since the backbone of the commercial airline industry, the Boing 737, came on line in 1968. Prices didn’t drop in the 50s and 60s, they dropped in the 80s.

                • Ed Furey says:

                  Fares had fallen steadily since the introduction of jet airliners. Even if there’s no competition — and there was always some — flying empty planes around is a strong incentive to lower prices. A 707 could cross the US three times in 24 hours, with double the seats on DC-6, which took about 14 hours to go from NYC to LA. That meant filling 700 seats a day, when before your only had to fill 60. You either lowered prices or went broke. They lowered prices.

                • DrDick says:

                  You either lowered prices or went broke. They lowered prices.

                  And went broke.

      • Bill Murray says:

        for many areas of the country, airline deregulation meant having to travel a hundred miles or more to fly at all

    • Linnaeus says:

      Not to mention the Carter Administration’s attempt to use Taft-Hartley to break a United Mine Workers’ strike and its lukewarm support for the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act.

      Carter was much less friendly to labor than you’d expect from a Democratic president.

  10. mpowell says:

    I think that it’s pretty much a given that PATCO made a terrible mistake and also I don’t think they deserved much sympathy from the rest of the labor movement. Under the circumstances, I just don’t think those kinds of actions square remotely with broader worker solidarity.

    The really interesting question to me is whether there would have been any way for the AFL/CIO or the rest of the labor movement to respond in a way that would have been less detrimental. Do you have to stick up for PATCO even if you believe they are being entitled jerks and are hurting the cause of labor generally? Or can you disown them and maintain enough credibility that you’ll respond aggressively if the government or private actors try the same tactics with other unions. Maybe the best thing would have been for the AFL/CIO to make it clear that they would kick PATCO out of the organization if they went on strike. Or maybe PATCO just screwed labor because the optics were going to be terrible no matter how the rest of the unions responded.

  11. Dilan Esper says:

    I can’t shed too many tears for PATCO, even though I think Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers was awful.

    Basically you have:

    1. A group of union workers who were pretty well paid and had pretty good working conditions to begin with. A 40 hour week at the salaries they were getting was reasonable, even if they wanted more. (And by the way, I disagree with some upthread– it’s actually not a great idea to be pushing to reduce the work week too much. If we did that on an economy-wide basis, it would make us significantly poorer over time. Obviously this principle can be taken too far in the other direction as well– we don’t want Japan’s work week and Japan’s suicide rate! But the basic principle that the work week should be long enough to increase the nation’s productive capacity is a reasonable one, even if it means people work harder than they would prefer.)

    2. A law that says that it is illegal to strike. And while I think that law is overbroad, I actually DO think it has some justification with respect to workers who are involved in public safety. The reality is that, for instance, police or firefighters can hold the pubic hostage in a way that, say, factory workers cannot. If the UAW goes on strike, people may not be able to buy new cars for a little while. If PATCO strikes, planes may crash.

    3. A union that is specifically strategizing based on a game of chicken on the issue of public safety. In other words, I am sure that they explicitly discussed the issue in terms of “they can’t fire us! There’s no way they take the risk of letting the planes crash by hiring untrained replacement workers!” I am sorry, I just can’t really sympathize with that tactic. If you are in a field that relates to public safety, you have different obligations and there’s a powerful interest on the other side of the ledger to balance against your pay and working conditions.

    • Linnaeus says:

      One can make a reasonable case for not allowing certain classes of workers who are essential to public safety and security to strike. That’s why, in such instances, contracts covering those workers should have some kind of mandatory arbitration.

    • Malaclypse says:

      it’s actually not a great idea to be pushing to reduce the work week too much. If we did that on an economy-wide basis, it would make us significantly poorer over time.

      Only true if you assume zero productivity gains.

    • Greg says:

      Um, maybe you should read McCartin’s book before sprouting off about working conditions and the adequacy of a 40hr work week. The equipment was (hell, is) badly outdated, too many flights into hub airports, etc. The reason for the 32hr work week was the stress of the job.

      • Dilan Esper says:

        There are plenty of stressful jobs, including involving public safety, where people work 40 hours or more a week. At any rate, if they really wanted to work 32 hours, maybe they should have taken a pay cut to do it.

        As for outdated equipment, nowhere in my post did I say that PATCO didn’t have SOME legitimate grievances. Indeed, they had one big one– Reagan fired them and put the country at risk.

        The problem is that on balance, their STRIKE (not every one of their arguments) was significantly unsympathetic.

    • Joseph Slater says:

      Hours restrictions are reasonable for workers who have high-stress jobs where intense focus is required and mistakes can lead to catastrophes.

      • DocAmazing says:

        A good place to see legislation regarding this at work is residency training–cf. “Libby’s Law”, following the death of Libby Zion, daughter of columnist Sidney Zion in NYC, attributed to her treatment by residents who were on their 30th hour of work.

        • Dilan Esper says:

          I don’t really buy that a 40 hour week is THAT stressful. But to the extent it is, that doesn’t mean that people who work less than 40 hours should be paid the same as people who work 40 hours.

          A 32 hour week is, as a general matter, quite cushy, and at the very least should not be seen as the norm.

          How long do air traffic controllers work now? Are any planes crashing? Didn’t think so.

  12. Ed Furey says:

    Actually, there was a crash attributed to controller mistakes. On September 23, 1981, a midair collision occurred over East Rutherford, NJ involving two small aircraft, a commercial helicopter and a twin-engine Piper Seneca.

    East Rutherford is a short distance from Teterboro airport, and the entire New York metro area is controlled airspace.

    Both people on the helicopter were killed when it crashed in the Meadowlands Sports Complex parking lot. The plane made an emergency landing in a swamp. The pilot was seriously injured, the passenger slightly injured.

    The NTSB found the cause of the accident was a “the controller’s preoccupation with a non-essential adminstrative telephone call.” Other training issues were cited, essentially that the controllers didn’t know a key piece of equipment (and there was some mistakes by the plane’s pilot).

    Normally, a mid-air collision, caused by controller negligence, would have been a slam dunk for PATCO, but the press and public decided to ignore it.

    • Richard says:

      I dont know about this crash but I saw reports, obviously not helpful to PATCO, stating that 1981 was the second year in a row with no air fatalities in commercial aviation. Collisions between noncommercial aircraft are not that uncommon so that is probably why this crash between a commercial helicoptor which may not have been carrying passengers and a Piper didn’t get much publicity.

  13. egads says:

    “PATCO went on strike for better pay, improved working conditions, and a 32-hour work week. The union wanted an across the board $10,000 pay raise and fully funded retirement after 20 years.”

    $10000 in 1980 dollars (you haven’t indicated that this figure is inflation-adjusted) equals a bit less than $28000 today. What was the median PATCO member’s salary in 1980? I can appreciate how extraordinarily stressful air traffic control can be, so maybe a work week shorter than 40 hours is appropriate, but, basically, you have a union demanding a four day work week, a $28000 raise across the board, and the ability to retire on full pension a decade or more prior to social security benefits kicking in (i.e. what people consider “retirement age”).

    What an absurd set of demands! Especially the raise! Is there any wonder why unions became so unpopular with the broader population?

    • Richard says:

      PATCO salaries ranged from $21,000 to $50,000. I think the median was about $40,000 so they were demanding a huge percentage wage increase. But, of course, this demand was negotiable. But it was stupid to make these demands and, when the demand was rejected, to illegally strike.

      But PATCO was not representative of other unions. Unions were not routinely asking for 25% pay raises in connection with 20% decrease in hours worked. The problem was that PATCO’s stupidity was then used to go against unions who were making no such demands.

    • dave3544 says:

      What an absurd set of demands! Especially the raise! Is there any wonder why unions became so unpopular with the broader population?

      And yet, the “broader population” seems perfectly fine with multi-million dollar salaries for CEOs.

      I know that I, for one, have no idea what it takes to be an air traffic controller. I have no idea the wage history of the public air traffic controllers. I have no basis for judging the validity of these wage proposals – the day unions get to “demand” things will be a glorious day indeed – and neither, dare I say, do you.

      What I do know is that workers should have the right to collective bargain for their wages and benefits. They should have the right to put forward proposals that they think are in their interest. (It’s management’s job to worry about the health of the company or the pocketbooks of the shareholders). And they should be able to expect their fellow workers to respect these rights and support them as best they can.

  14. egads says:


    Not sure if that comment is directed at me, but this is the very first time I’ve ever posted a comment on LGM. And I used the word “absurd” once in the comment.

    And yes, I think demanding the equivalent of a $28000 raise across the board is an absurd one, unless the employees in question are making like $10000 a year, which certainly wasn’t the case here. Don’t like “absurd”? How about “ludicrous”?

  15. DHM says:

    For an excellent look at the strike from the left, check out “Thirty Years Since the PATCO Strike” by Tom Mackaman, available from Mehring Books.

  16. Outstanding post with a great deal of contemporary significance. I’m not a labor scholar, but the public taste for this historical labor event does seem, from where I’m sitting now, to foreshadow the full frontal [sic] attacks on public sector unions in the past year.

    • Joseph Slater says:

      Absolutely. There has long been a rhetoric in the U.S. that employees of government aren’t “real workers” but rather “overpaid bureaucrats” — no matter what the public employee is doing. That was relatively easy to pin on PATCO, and it got pinned on some rather more unlikely targets in 2011.

      Shameless self-promotion alert: if you’re interested in the even older history of this sort of thing, consider taking a glance at my book, _Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 1900-1962 (Cornell, 2004).

  17. That Other Guy says:

    There’s plenty of places one can mark where American labor began its decline: Taft-Hartley. The expulsion of the communists from the unions.

    Ya’ know, I was with you up until you started lamenting the expulsion of the communists from the unions as if that was overall a bad thing.

    There’s no room for communists in the unions or in this man’s Democratic Party.

    • DrDick says:

      Sad actually, since you probably would not have unions or many of the Democrats’ signature policies/issues (Social Security, 40 hour week, etc.) without the communists (actually the socialists). Many, if not most, of the original union organizers were socialists and most of those policies originated with the socialist parties in this country and were co-opted by FDR.

  18. [...] into the first union contract in the history of California agricultural labor. August 3, 1981–Air Traffic Controllers go on strike in biggest disaster in organized labor’s history. August 4, 1942–Creation of the Bracero Program. August 21, 1831–Nat Turner’s [...]

  19. [...] I share this exchange because it gets at a question plaguing labor historians and labor activists for a long time–when and why did things turn bad for organized labor? Was it Taft-Hartley? The CIO kicking the communists out of the unions? The so-called “grand bargain” between labor and management that defanged shopfloor activism? The Border Industrialization Project and outsourcing industrial labor to Latin America and Asia? The rise of the conservative movement? The air traffic controllers strike? [...]

  20. [...] August 3, 1981: Air Traffic Controllers go on strike in biggest disaster in organized labor’s history [...]

  21. [...] of public unions today. Can public workers go on strike? Reagan ultimately said no with the PATCO strike in 1981. On this blog we’ve had debates about whether BART workers should go strike because it [...]

  22. [...] the cities of the industrial north. Government moves to bust unions certainly has blame too. In the PATCO strike, Reagan came down hard against air traffic controllers who had overthrown their previous union [...]

  23. [...] Nixon was forced to negotiate despite his earlier pledge. What finally did get the rank and file to give up the strike was some dissent within the workers–the New York locals were far more militant than the rest of the country’s unions and many of those returned to work after the military became involved. So when Nixon and Rademacher announced the outline of a final agreement, militants wanted to continue striking but the rank and file generally approved and returned to work. The final agreement gave the postal workers an 14% pay increase (6% retroactive to 1969 and 8% for the next year) and collective bargaining rights on wages and working conditions, although not the right to strike. The workers were not punished for having engaged in an illegal walkout. This was a landmark moment in the history of public sector unionism, ushering in a decade of enormous advances for these workers, until Reagan kneecapped them with the PATCO strike. [...]

  24. […] in The Jungle, the United Food and Commercial Workers represented workers in the industry. In the wake of labor’s overwhelming defeat in the PATCO strike, when Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers union, UFCW leadership, like most of the rest of […]

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