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Defining Moment: Air Traffic Controller Strike One Of Labor's Monumental Last Stands

Defining Moment: Air Traffic Controller Strike One Of Labor's Monumental Last Stands

The crowd was both defiant and jubilant as the clock ticked down on their careers.

Most were men, some joined by their wives and kids. There were perhaps 100 local air traffic controllers gathered in a park in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and they were all ready to call the bluff of President Ronald Reagan.

I covered the local portion of the 1981 strike by the nation’s 12,000 air traffic controllers -- from airports throughout western Michigan and northern Indiana -- and nobody knew then that this would become one of organized labor’s monumental last stands.

Reagan set a time of 11 a.m. EDT, when all workers had to return or else they’d be fired.

“We believe in what we’re doing enough to put our jobs on the line,” Rex Copenhaver, head of Local 330 of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association, told me.

Related link: What Trump’s Air Traffic Initiative Means For Travelers

As the moment of truth moved closer, the crowd raised their cans of Stroh’s beer and began to chant off the countdown.


President Donald Trump, mired in controversy over mounting accusations his campaign colluded with Russian hackers to get him elected, kicked off “infrastructure week” to divert attention from the Thursday testimony before Congress of James Comey, the FBI director the president fired.

He began on Monday by announcing plans to privatize the nation’s air traffic controllers system.


“We’re still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work,” Trump said of the current air traffic control organization run by the FAA. “Other than that, it’s quite good.”


The National Air Traffic Control Association, the current union and comparatively quite toothless, said it wants to see some specifics of the plan, which would entail creating a not-for-profit agency.

“We look forward to reviewing the specifics of the air traffic control (ATC) reform legislation so we can evaluate whether it satisfies our Union’s principles, including protecting the rights and benefits of the ATC workforce,” (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement.


Things were much more contentious back in 1981, when organized labor was many times more powerful than it is today. Reagan, and most Republicans, weren’t nearly as virulently anti-union as their counterparts today.

The union wanted more money and better hours, but there was a catch and Reagan seized on it. By law, PATCO was prohibited from striking.

Image courtesy of the Kalamazoo Public Library


That didn’t stop the union from staging periodic work slowdowns or “sickouts” that stacked up traffic. But on Aug. 3, 1981, the union went on strike after it and the government failed to agree on a new contract.


Reagan gave the workers 48 hours to return to work or they would be fired. “The PATCO strike happened at this important turning point in American history, and it left a very profound legacy," said Joseph McCartin, history professor at Georgetown University.

That strike and the mass firings that ensued -- much of the air traffic control was being filled in by management or military controllers -- would ultimately lead to the gutting of organized labor.


Politicians would invoke Reagan’s union-busting legacy for generations. Perhaps most notably, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 signed legislation stripping most of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions of their rights to collective bargaining.


Ironically, PATCO had endorsed Republican Reagan in his quest to unseat President Jimmy Carter. Reagan was sympathetic to the air controllers grueling, stressful jobs “pushing tin,” in the jargon of routing airplanes.


Mostly, though, PATCO members were angry at their boss, the Federal Aviation Administration, which answered to Carter.


The deadline dropped and the crowd in the Kalamazoo park exploded with cheers. Backs were slapped and fives were highed.

Few expected the firings to last. They were wrong.

Reagan fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored the order, and banned them from federal service for life.


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