40th Anniversary Of The Air Traffic Controllers Strike That Turned The Tide Of U.S. Labor Relations

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Federal employees always get paid during government shutdowns. They literally do not know how not to pay people – the computer payroll systems are not programmed for that. Same with every other entitlement program with monthly checks – there is no STOP then RESUME function for the entire system. (And some federal employees are working anyway, you aren’t going to stop paying them all.) You can stop payment on an individual, which means that each and every individual who isn’t working would need to be entered individually. Not gonna happen.

  2. Reagan, the front man for the beginning of America’s serious decline. He was too stupid to do it single handed, but allowed Bush and company to do Iran Gate, financed the terrorist right wing death squads in Central America, encouraged racism, ignored AIDS, tripled the national debt by letting corporate taxes decline, stopped enforcing anti-monopoly legislation, and allegedly conspired to hold the Tehran hostages until Carter was out of office. A superficially charming man who the right reveres. Is it any surprise that he was not to be trusted?

  3. Federal employees always get paid during government shutdowns

    That’s a lovely statement. It’s completely wrong, but it’s a lovely…bit of Fox News agitprop. Neither Federal employees nor entitlement holders get their money during a shutdown.

  4. If going to war with the union and firing most members is a spirit of cooperation I wonder what he would have done to them if he DIDN’T like them. It’s like a precursor of going out hunting with Dick Cheney.

  5. Public sector unions never should have been permitted. Even FDR opposed them. With private sector unions the management (who shoud be representing shareholders) negotiate with the unions (who should be representing employees). Everyone is represented. With public sector unions the taxpayers (it is their money at stake) isn’t represented in the negotiations.

    Side note @Total – Government employees have received full back pay after every shut down in US history.

  6. @doug the taxpayers are represented by the government that elected them, you unbelievable moron.

    What the other unbelievable moron was saying was that fed employees were paid *during* the shutdowns. That’s not remotely true. That they got back pay is a good thing, you — to repeat myself — unbelievable moron, unless you’re happy when your employer stops paying you for some random reason and then never makes it up. Do you work for free?

  7. @Qinxuan Pan Isn’t America great? You can choose to read or not a blog post. The beauty: your choice.

    That you think your comment was worthwhile is baffling.

  8. @total – Discussions can be had without name calling. We aren’t 7 year-olds. The taxpayers are not represented in the negotiations when the politicians who are supposedly representing them are being given millions of dollars by the unions. If you were a company owner, would you trust your CEO to negotiate with a union if that same union just bought him a new BMW?

  9. Government employees have an incentive to do poor work to justify their useless bureaucratic jobs. They are all pensions ₩h0res. Nothing they do would remotely justify their existence in the real world. Even the military is just as much as a waste as everything else.

  10. So, about back pay during shut-downs, the complicating factor is that most (all?) federal employees face restrictions on accepting private sector employment while employed by the government. While the federal government is shut down, we remain employed. That means any private sector employment requires clearance by each agency’s ethics office, which would be shut down. I absolutely understand the concern about paying us when we aren’t actually doing any work, but you all need to understand that we cannot legally just run off and get a job at McDonalds to pay the bills while Congress and the President fight it out.

  11. Government nor government contractors get paid during a shutdown. There are exempt such as the military and others vital (such as the bean counters) who are still work. Gov workers and contractors who are not exempt are even allowed on government premises. Congress may fund specific agencies (such as those that process social security checks ) but otherwise everyone gets leave without pay. Congress may or may not authorize back pay during a shutdown.

    Sorry guys but it’s no holiday. The contractors get no back pay for the time away. Often they get laid off immediately if they are working for a small firm. Some of large firms give a % of pay to keep workers. So next time you hear about a government shutdown, it impacts thousands of people just trying to do their job.

  12. @ Total. The elected representative seldom are involved in employee negotiations . . . it’s the duty of the career bureaucrats and is definitely a conflict of interest. Have you never heard government employees saying “they (management) get the slice of the bread and we get the crumbs”?

  13. Ironic that Regan was President of the Screen Actors guild and led them through implementing the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act, various labor-management disputes, and the Hollywood blacklist era. First instituted in 1947 by Studio executives who agreed that they would not employ anyone believed to be or to have been Communists or sympathetic with radical politics, the blacklist grew steadily larger during the early 1950s as the U.S. Congress continued to investigate domestic political subversion.

    Once a Blacklister always one.

  14. Gary, make up your mind. Are you going to write about travel, points, getting the best deals possible and having a good airline experience or not, because there is nothing in the string above that has anything to do with those subjects. This should not be a forum for political debate. If that’s your goal, I would suggest a new title: View From The Right Wing.

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