On This Day: Reagan and the Air Traffic Controllers

Today’s post comes from Reagan Library Education Department staffer Brett Robert.

Thirty-five years ago on Monday August 3, 1981 members of PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, went on strike at 7 A.M.  Shortly before 11 A.M. President Reagan delivered the above remarks from the White House Rose Garden.

Let me make one thing plain. I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike. Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union. I guess I’m maybe the first one to ever hold this office who is a lifetime member of an AFL – CIO union. But we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government’s reason for being.

Page 1 of The Labor Management Relations Act, 1947 passed by the 80th Congress, after overriding President Truman’s veto.  ARC Identifier 299855

During the twentieth century regulation regarding American unions underwent several large shifts.   The Wagner Act in 1935 and the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, also known as the Labor Management Relations Act, were the first major pieces of legislation regarding private sector unions, but neither granted Federal employees to the right to form unions.  A series of executive orders and laws came into play during the Kennedy, Nixon, and Carter administrations regarding the rights of Federal Employees to unionize and collectively bargain.  President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10988 was largely replaced by President Nixon’s Executive Order 11491. Before Kennedy’s 1962 Executive Order Federal employees did not have the same guaranteed right to unionize as private-sector workers.  Nixon’s Executive Order sought to guarantee those rights, expand them in some ways, and establish the National Federal Labor Relations Council.  President Jimmy Carter sought to have Congress strengthen these protections further, which led to the passage of the Federal Labor Relations Act of 1978 (FLRA). The FLRA guaranteed many union rights but prohibited Federal employees from striking.

For more resources about the history of labor rights in the twentieth century, there are several Federal Government sites that may be of interest.  A brief history of the process of establishing Federal labor rights can be found in this article from the National Labor Relations Authority.  The following links from the Kennedy Library’s oral history project has several interviews regarding the history of Executive Order 10988: including this interview with Daniel Patrick Moynihan Assistant to the Secretary, United States Department of Labor, 1961-65 (see p. 6-8), this interview with Richard Murphy Assistant Postmaster General, Washington, 1961 – 1969 (see p. 23-28), and this interview with Stephen Shulman who was Executive Assistant to the Secretary of Labor in 1961-62 (see p. 2).

In 1981 President Reagan faced a significant challenge in how to deal with the PATCO. Federal unions were not even twenty years old.  The right of private workers to unionize was important to President Reagan, who had proudly served several terms as President of the Screen Actor’s Guild, an AFL-CIO union.  The PATCO strike tested this strongly held personal belief in private sector unions as instrumental to capitalism against Reagan’s equally strong belief in the importance of keeping government small and efficient.  In the end Reagan concluded that not only were Federal worker’s unions fundamentally and legally different from private unions, but that it was necessary to take a strong stance in fully enforcing the FLRA’s strike prohibition.  Within hours of the strike commencing Reagan stood in the Rose Garden delivering a 48-hour ultimatum, seen and heard in the speech at the top of this article.  Striking air traffic controllers had 48-hours to return to work or they would be fired.

Reagan held true to his word and on August 5, 1981 more than 11,000 striking members of PATCO were fired.  For weeks and months the PATCO strike was front-page news.  On August 4, 1981 the Washington Post ran this story highlighting the affects of the strike on travellersThis story from the Los Angeles Times on August 6, 1981 highlights strikers.  Months later the press was still running articles like this one from the New York Times, as they continued to try to dissect why PATCO had decided to strike and why it had failed.  For PATCO the strike was indeed a failure.  In the last months of 1981 the strikers were fired, its president resigned, and the union was de-certified.

In the years since 1981 historians, activists, pundits, and policy makers have sought to understand and ascribe meaning to the PATCO strike and Reagan’s response to it.  Many observers point to the breaking of the PATCO strike as important because it established confidence in Reagan’s leadership ability and made the Soviet Union take him seriously.  Others contend that breaking the strike was a serious blow to organized labor in the United States that had consequences for both public and private sector unions.

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