In 1981, Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers. PATCO was involved in an illegal strike, no question. And PATCO members were pretty out of touch in some of their demands (the continuation of free flights to Europe was unlikely to build solidarity with literally anyone else in the country). But as Joseph McCartin noted in his magisterial book on the strike, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America, this aggressive militancy came out of the horribly stressful working conditions for these controllers and utter indifference from FAA administrators to their plight. It is incredibly lucky that Reagan’s act didn’t kill hundreds if not thousands of people, since the FAA was understaffed and filled with people not properly trained for years after the firings.
You haven’t heard too much about the working conditions of air traffic controllers since. I had kind of assumed that the massive improvements in technology had perhaps made their jobs less stressful. But no. This Times piece on just how hard that job is, how workers are again dealing with it by getting drunk or high on the job (that was big in the 70s too), and how the FAA is totally indifferent to their plight brings us right back to those conditions that led to the 1981 strike. The sheer number of people doing this job is plummeting. This is….not a good thing! To say the least, the union of controllers today is a lot less militant than PATCO was, but something has to give pretty soon here. I’d definitely read the whole thing.