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ISR Issue 49, September–October 2006

N E W S & R E P O R T S


“Return to work or you're fired”


“YOU CAN rest assured that if I am elected president, I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety,” then Republican candidate for president, Ronald Reagan promised Robert Poli, the head of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in a letter dated October 1980.
As we all know, campaign promises are meant to be broken. The difference in August 1981 was that President Ronald Reagan broke not only his campaign promises to the air traffic controllers but also their union, which dramatically altered the balance of forces between workers and bosses. PATCO, the acronym of a union that few had heard of before the summer of 1981, became a word that explained all the disasters that befell the American workers in the quarter century since then.
PATCO, along with a handful of other unions including the Teamsters led by Mafia patsy and FBI informer Jackie Presser, endorsed Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, while the bulk of unions in the AFL-CIO endorsed the incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter, whose administration had broken every promise it had made to the labor movement in his four turbulent and disappointing years in office. Carter even brokered a deal where members of the United Auto Workers gave over $1 billion in wage and benefit concessions in order that the federal government would guarantee loans to the ailing Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler went on to boom in the eighties but autoworkers got the pink slip.
In the year following his election, Reagan continued a policy, begun under the ousted Carter administration, of stalling in contract negotiations with PATCO, while putting everything in place to break them if they decided to strike.
PATCO members had decided that they had had enough, and voted to strike-even though, as federal employees, they were barred from striking and faced possible dire consequences. “The strike is a result of frustration that's been building up for years,” PATCO striker Robert Devery told Business Week in 1981. “We're not on strike over money. People are tired of being dumped on, and they want to make it to retirement.” Stress is the main cause of illness and death for controllers, as they juggle the lives of thousands of airline passengers every day.
PATCO's main demands centered around safer working conditions and early retirement. They wanted (and the federal government opposed) creating a thirty-two-hour workweek, updating nearly obsolete computer equipment, and retirement after twenty years of service. U.S. air traffic controllers were the only controllers in the world forced to work forty-hour weeks with up to twenty hours of mandatory overtime on top of that. They also worked eight-hour shifts, often without breaks. It was and is a horrible job-a quick route to disability and chronic illness. Eighty-nine percent of controllers, before the 1981 strike, left their jobs before retirement age, nearly 40 percent of whom left to collect disability retirement.
On August 3, 1981, 13,000 controllers represented by PATCO walked off the job and onto the picket lines at civilian airports across the country. Later that day at a national press conference in the White House rose garden, Reagan gave the strikers forty-eight hours to, “Return to work or you're fired.” Fewer than 120 strikers returned to work across the country. The strikers held firm and morale remained high-spirited, but quickly things began to unravel. Though PATCO was not a member of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization of most American trade unions, they expected support from the broad labor movement, led by Lane Kirkland.
Reagan, who had broken his promises to PATCO for a fair contract and better working conditions, kept his promise to America's bosses that his administration would usher in a new era of “labor-management relations.” He fired the remaining strikers and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decertified PATCO as the bargaining representative for civilian air traffic controllers. Civilian air traffic operations were maintained by management, scabs, and military controllers. Though the strike lingered on for seventeen months, it was effectively defeated from the day it began. The Reagan administration's actions would be upheld as legal under the draconian National Railway Labor Act.
With the busting of PATCO, an era of catastrophe for working-class people began in the United States. From the summer of 1981 to the present, the percentage of U.S. workers represented by unions was cut in half from nearly a quarter of the workforce to barely 12 percent today-whole sections of the economy have become de-unionized. Real wages have been on the decline since then, while benefits and pensions have disappeared for tens of millions. The political power of American workers, though never great since the end of the Second World War, has been reduced to zero in many places. A whole generation of people has come of age since the PATCO strike to whom unions rarely, if ever, cross their minds.
It may seem difficult to understand now, but the whole PATCO disaster and the subsequent onslaught of union-busting and concessions could have been averted, or at the very least mitigated, but trade union officials were unwilling to do what was necessary to win. PATCO went down to defeat, most importantly, because of the lack of solidarity on the picket line from other unions. While PATCO represented 13,000 controllers at U.S. airports, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) led by self-proclaimed “socialist” William Winpisinger, represented easily ten times that number of mechanics, baggage handlers, and other airline workers. If there was one union that had the power to completely halt air traffic in the country and bring the federal government to its knees it was the machinists.
The failure of the machinists to honor PATCO's picket lines doomed the strike. It also doomed the IAM in the airline industry, which has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.
Instead of solidarity on the picket line, PATCO got a march in Washington. In September 1981, nearly three-quarters of a million workers demonstrated in Washington to protest budget cuts and the destruction of PATCO. It was called Solidarity Day. While it was unique for the conservative AFL-CIO to call for a demonstration on the streets of Washington, Solidarity Day was, in effect, a substitute for real solidarity from other unions. This didn't go unnoticed at the time. Frank Swaboda, of the Washington Post reported that, “for Kirkland and the nation's trade union movement, however, the current rally appears to be a crucial part of a broader plan to return to power within the Democratic Party.” Yet the size of Solidarity Day showed that a mobilization of the labor movement to engage in practical solidarity with PATCO was a real possibility.
Twenty-five years later the trade unions are still trying to “return” to a mythical power that they believe they once had inside the Democratic Party. Public sector trade unions in particular continue to face terrible repression for activities that are legal in other countries. Last December, New York City transit workers faced million dollars a day in fines and the jailing of their leader, Roger Toussaint, after a week-long strike. Political repression in the United States is seen as affecting other groups (immigrants, political activists, Muslims) but not trade unionists, despite the vast array of state and federal laws directed at restricting and criminalizing union activities. This is something that has to change. But, the ultimate lesson of PATCO is as valid today as twenty-five years ago-solidarity is the key to victory.

Joe Allen is a regular contributor to the ISR. His three-part series on the Vietnam War can be read at
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