Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (1968)

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PATCO logo.png
Full nameProfessional Air Traffic Controllers Organization
Date dissolved1981
CountryUnited States

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization or PATCO was a United States trade union that operated from 1968 until its decertification in 1981 following an illegal strike that was broken by the Reagan Administration. According to labor historian Joseph A. McCartin, the 1981 strike and defeat of PATCO was "one of the most important events in late twentieth century U.S. labor history".[1]


Year Presidents of PATCO
1969–1970 James E. Hayes
1970–1980 John F. Leyden
1980–1982 Robert E. Poli
1982 Gary W. Eads

PATCO was founded in 1968 with the assistance of attorney and pilot F. Lee Bailey. On July 3, 1968, PATCO announced "Operation Air Safety" in which all members were ordered to adhere strictly to the established separation standards for aircraft. The resultant large delay of air traffic was the first of many official and unofficial "slowdowns" that PATCO would initiate.

In 1969, the U.S. Civil Service Commission ruled that PATCO was no longer a professional association but in fact a trade union.[2] On June 18–20, 1969, 477 controllers conducted a three-day sick-out.[3]

On March 25, 1970, the newly designated union orchestrated a controller "sickout" to protest many of the FAA actions that they felt were unfair; over 2,000 controllers around the country did not report to work as scheduled and informed management that they were ill.[4] Controllers called in sick to circumvent the federal law against strikes by government unions. Management personnel attempted to assume many of the duties of the missing controllers but major traffic delays around the country occurred. On April 16, the federal courts intervened and most controllers went back to work by order of the court, but the government was forced to the bargaining table. The sickout led officials to recognize that the ATC system was operating nearly at capacity. To alleviate some of this, Congress accelerated the installation of automated systems, reopened the air traffic controller training academy in Oklahoma City, began hiring air traffic controllers at an increasing rate, and raised salaries to help attract and retain controllers.[2]

In the 1980 presidential election, PATCO (along with the Teamsters and the Air Line Pilots Association) refused to back President Jimmy Carter, instead endorsing Republican Party candidate Ronald Reagan. PATCO's refusal to endorse the Democratic Party stemmed in large part from poor labor relations with the FAA (the employer of PATCO members) under the Carter administration and Ronald Reagan's endorsement of the union and its struggle for better conditions during the 1980 election campaign.[5][6]

August 1981 strike[edit]

On August 3, 1981, during a press conference regarding the PATCO strike, President Reagan stated: "They are in violation of the law and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated."

At 7 a.m. on August 3, 1981, the union declared a strike, seeking better working conditions, better pay (PATCO sought a total raise of $600 million over three years, compared to FAA's offer of $50 million)[7] and a 32-hour workweek (a four-day week and an eight-hour day combined). In addition, PATCO wanted to be excluded from the civil service clauses that it had long disliked. In striking, the union violated 5 U.S.C. (Supp. III 1956) 118p (now 5 U.S.C. § 7311), which prohibits strikes by federal government employees. After supporting PATCO's effort in his 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan declared the PATCO strike a "peril to national safety" and ordered them back to work under the terms of the Taft–Hartley Act. Only 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers returned to work.[5] At 10:55 a.m., Reagan included the following in a statement: "Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees, a sworn affidavit, when they accepted 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.'"[8] He then demanded those remaining on strike return to work within 48 hours or officially forfeit their positions. At the same time, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis organized for replacements and started contingency plans. By prioritizing and cutting flights severely, and even adopting methods of air traffic management that PATCO had previously lobbied for, the government was initially able to have 50% of flights available.[5]

On August 5, following the PATCO workers' refusal to return to work, Reagan fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored the order,[9][10] and banned them from federal service for life. In the wake of the strike and mass firings, the FAA was faced with the task of hiring and training enough controllers to replace those that had been fired, a hard problem to fix as, at the time, it took three years in normal conditions to train a new controller.[2] They were replaced initially with non-participating controllers, supervisors, staff personnel, some non-rated personnel, and in some cases by controllers transferred temporarily from other facilities. Some military controllers were also used until replacements could be trained. The FAA had initially claimed that staffing levels would be restored within two years; however, it took closer to ten years before the overall staffing levels returned to normal.[2] PATCO was decertified by the Federal Labor Relations Authority on October 22, 1981. The decision was appealed.[11][further explanation needed]

Some former striking controllers were allowed to reapply after 1986 and were rehired; they and their replacements are now represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which was organized in 1987 and had no connection with PATCO. The civil service ban on the remaining strike participants was lifted by President Bill Clinton in 1993.[12]


In 2003, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, speaking on the legacy of Ronald Reagan,[13] noted:

Perhaps the most important, and then highly controversial, domestic initiative was the firing of the air traffic controllers in August 1981. The President invoked the law that striking government employees forfeit their jobs, an action that unsettled those who cynically believed no President would ever uphold that law. President Reagan prevailed, as you know, but far more importantly his action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.

Reagan's director of the United States Office of Personnel Management at the time, Donald J. Devine, argued:

"When the president said no, American business leaders were given a lesson in managerial leadership that they could not and did not ignore. Many private sector executives have told me that they were able to cut the fat from their organizations and adopt more competitive work practices because of what the government did in those days. I would not be surprised if these unseen effects of this private sector shakeout under the inspiration of the president were as profound in influencing the recovery that occurred as the formal economic and fiscal programs."[14]

In a review of Joseph McCartin's 2011 book, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, The Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America in Review 31, Richard Sharpe stated that Reagan was "laying down a marker" for his presidency: "The strikers were often working-class men and women who had achieved suburban middle class lives as air traffic controllers without having gone to college. Many were veterans of the US armed forces where they had learned their skills; their union had backed Reagan in his election campaign. Nevertheless, Reagan refused to back down. Several strikers were jailed; the union was fined and eventually made bankrupt. Only about 800 got their jobs back when Clinton lifted the ban on rehiring those who went on strike. Many of the strikers were forced into poverty as a result of being blacklisted for [U.S. government] employment."[15]

Trade unions representing air traffic controllers[edit]

In addition to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, two organizations now claim the name and part or all of the jurisdiction of the original PATCO: Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (AFSCME) and Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.


  1. ^ McCartin, Joseph A. (2006), "Professional Air Traffic Controllers Strike (1981)", in Eric Arnesen (ed.), Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History, CRC Press, pp. 1123–1126, ISBN 0-415-96826-7
  2. ^ a b c d Nolan, Michael S. (1999). Fundamentals of air traffic control (3rd ed.). Pacific Grove, California: Brooks/Cole. ISBN 978-0-534-56795-8.
  3. ^ Nick Komos (August 1989). Air Progress: 81. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ "One Man's Slow-Motion Aerial Act". Time. 1970-04-06. Retrieved 2009-09-17.
  5. ^ a b c Beik, Mildred A. (2005). Labor Relations. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 249–257. ISBN 0-313-31864-6.
  6. ^ Fantasia, Rick; Kim Voss (2004). Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 67. ISBN 0-520-24090-1.
  7. ^ "Lewis said the government offer rejected earlier in the..." UPI. 3 August 1981. Retrieved 31 January 2019.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Early, Steve (2006-07-31). "An old lesson still holds for unions". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2007-08-15.
  10. ^ "Unhappy Again". Time. 1986-10-06. Retrieved 2007-08-15.
  11. ^ "Patco Decertification Vote Is Switched From 2–1 to 3–0". The New York Times. 1981-11-05.
  12. ^ Van Horn, Carl E.; Schaffner, Herbert A. (2003), "Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization Strike", Work in America: an encyclopedia of history, policy, and society, Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, pp. 444–446, ISBN 1-57607-676-8
  13. ^ The Reagan Legacy: Remarks by Chairman Alan Greenspan Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley, California, April 9, 2003
  14. ^ Donald J. Devine (1991). Reagan's Terrible Swift Sword. Ottawa, IL.: Jameson Books. p. 84. ISBN 9780898031638.
  15. ^ "Laying Down A Marker", Richard Sharpe. Review 31

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