August 3-5, 1981 were a remarkable set of days in U.S. aviation. Negotiations between the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the air traffic controllers union broke down in 1981. The union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, wanted to reduce work hours to 32 and wanted a $10,000 raise for each controller. The FAA offered 11.4% a year raises for 3 years, which was more than double what was offered to other federal employees. No reduced work week was offered.
The union declared a strike on August 3, 1981 which violated what is now 5 U.S.C. § 7311 prohibiting federal government employees from striking.
President Reagan ordered air traffic controllers back to work, calling their strike a “peril to national safety.” Approximately 10% of the nation’s 13,000 controllers came back to work.
The President held a news conference where he read from the oath taken by each federal employees upon accepting 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.
Reagan gave striking controllers 48 hours to return to work or lose their jobs. He obtained a federal court injunction against the strike, and the court fined the union and several of its officers for each day of the trike.
The government managed to get air system capacity up to 50%, enough not to have to capitulate politically to the strikers. Without flights, the administration would have been under tremendous pressure to agree to terms. Some military controllers were used, along with air traffic control supervisors, and other employees to restore air service capacity. It took 10 years for staffing levels to be fully restored.
On August 5, 1981 the President fired the 11,345 striking controllers who did not return to work, as well as banning them from federal employment for life. The Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified the union two months later.
Some striking air traffic controllers were re-hired in 1986, while the civil service ban was fully lifted by President Clinton during his first year in office. This was an important symbolic victory for unions as an important Democratic constituency, however less than 1000 air traffic controllers were actually rehired following this move.
PATCO had endorsed Ronald Reagan for President during the 1980 elections. During the campaign Reagan wrote the union promising a “spirit of cooperation.” Several scholars consider the President’s firing of air traffic controllers to have been an important moment in labor relations, which emboldened private sector employers to exercise their own legal rights in this area as well.
Two years ago, during the government shutdown, air traffic controllers started not showing up to work. That helped end the shutdown, and the controllers won. They were emboldened when they started hearing they’d get paid for their sick out days when the shutdown ended, and those wouldn’t count against accrued leave.