The Air Traffic Controllers' Strike of 1981
By: Nick Bucher
The air traffic controllers' strike of 1981 has been viewed as one of the major labor strikes in recent history. This labor strike showed the members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association's (PATCO) concern with the working conditions they were provided with by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). This strike was not a strike of abruptness and without warning. PATCO had been having problems and complaints with how the FAA was running their operations and treating their employees many years before this actual strike. The FAA's inability to recognize and act upon these complaints over time played a major role in PATCO's strong stand and eventual strike. According to Joe Simonetta of Hoover's Manufacturing and Industry team, "The air traffic control strike of 1981 has become a symbol of the decline of organized labor in the U.S. (2000)"
According to the Workmen's Circle Arbeter Ring, "The Air Traffic Controllers' (ATC) strike of 1981 marked a symbolic turning point in labor management relations (1997)." On August 3, 1981 almost 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike after months of negotiations with the federal government. During these contract talks, Robert Poli, president of PATCO, explained the union's three major demands as a $10,000 across the board raise, a 32-hour work week (down from 40), and a better retirement package. While the press mainly concentrated on the demand for a pay raise, other commentators and reporters began to realize that this walkout was not solely, or even primarily, an economic issue. According to the essay written by Pels, Newsweek noted, "controllers concede their chief complaint was not money, but hours, working conditions, and a lack of recognition for the pressures they face (1995)." By saying this, PATCO members were hoping to relieve members of the FAA and encourage them to negotiate these issues in order to reach an agreement. Even with the issue of salary lowered from the top of their list, such views had little impact on the negotiations. So according to McLaughlin, "One of the most important thing Ronald Reagan did during his presidency was break the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike, which helped break the hold of organized labor over the U.S. economy (1999)." Pels states, "48 Hours after the walkout, he proceeded to fire the 11,350 ATC's (almost 70% of the workforce) who had not returned to work. In case the message was still unclear, he declared a lifetime ban on the rehiring of the strikers by the FAA (1995)."
The main issue most people failed to see surrounding the strike was control of the workplace. Many historians have debated whether workplace control is still a key issue in late twentieth century management-worker relations. This strike between the two groups did not just come out of nowhere. Struggles between the FAA and PATCO had been going on ever since PATCO's formation in 1968. Pels claims, "The PATCO controversy is particularly useful in illustrating such an assessment of how factors such as technological advances and the discourse and substance of labor-management bargaining since World War II have served to mask the ongoing struggle between the FAA and the air traffic controllers, which is often to the disadvantage of the workers involved (1995)." First, both parties' main goal is to assure the maximum safety of air travel. This leads to suspect that management's search for profits and workers' search for job satisfaction is not the factor for the division of the two groups. Second, the FAA possessed a monopoly over the training and hiring of air traffic controllers (except for a small percentage who worked for the military). Since this was the case, most ATC's had little choice but to work for the government. They therefore had a large stake in work conditions and benefits. The same factors gave the FAA a stronger force in dealing with its workforce. Third, the majority of controllers found their work very challenging, exciting, and interesting. This indicates that the complaints from the controllers must have run deeper than unhappiness with the occupation itself. Finally, the advancement of technology played a key role in both the cause and the resolution of the strike. With the advancement of equipment came greater air traffic volume and increased demands on ATC capabilities made possible by this new technology. Along with this came faulty equipment and autocratic management that limited workplace independence. Combining all of this came the ATC's singling out stress as their primary motive for striking. Yet neither PATCO nor the controllers made this connection explicit or strongly challenged management privilege to decide the nature and purpose of computers in air towers (Pels, 1995).
The FAA commissioned a study in 1972 headed by Dr. Robert Rose, known as the Rose Report, which found the job of an air traffic controller was not stressful within itself. However, the researchers found that many of the stresses related with the job, indicated by high levels of drinking and depression, were due to autocratic management and a system, which included little reward and a fear of burnout. I think this can be argued as very true today in the 21st century. With the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, I could definitely see the stresses related to the job causing major concerns for not only the controllers and pilots of the plains, but also their families as well. The contrast I can see is that advancement in the overall technology and security throughout the airports show me that the FAA is definitely looking into the interests of their employees. Controllers began to notice that these stresses were not only affecting their job performance but also their life away from work. Working 6 days a week and 10 hours a day at times disrupted their family life at home. These controllers were not just striking for higher wages, but also improved equipment, which could very possibly lead to fewer hours. This would enable them to spend more time at home and enjoy much less disruption from their everyday life as a family. Even with the findings of the Rose Report, FAA officials continued to ignore these conclusions. On top of all this, the FAA was demanding that controllers handle increasing traffic loads with staffing that was already below the agency's own standards. Then even when the union pointed out the problem, the FAA revised its facility staffing standards to legitimize the situation.
Pels states, "By 1981 management-labor relations had deteriorated to an all-time low. ATC's complained of staff shortages, dangerously out-of-date equipment, limited opportunities for transfer, and harsh authoritarian leadership (1995)." When negotiations opened in February, President Poli brought a list of 97 demands to the table with 60 of them concerning various work conditions. In March 78% of PATCO membership indicated their willingness to back a strike. In June, the FAA made its final offer of $2500 pay increase, a 15% increase in pay for night work, and a guaranteed thirty-minute lunch period. So, when Poli presented the terms to the PATCO members, an astonishing 95% voted to reject the terms. The FAA refused to make any further concessions in the talks that followed, and on August 3, 85% of PATCO's members went on strike (Pels, 1995).
President Reagan then threatened to fire all the ATC's who did not return to work within 48 hours. Only 1,650 did, and the remaining 11,350 lost their jobs. The FAA had to immediately implement their newly advised plan to offset the effects of the strike. Through the use of flow control, the remaining 10,000 workers were able to maintain over 80% of scheduled air traffic. Even with the extended workweek and overtime hours which had to put in the workforce morale was high. With the loss of many of the experienced employees, the stress and heavy burden was put upon those who remained. By 1983, controllers were looking to create a new union. In 1987, ATC's (almost all nonstrikers or new employees) moved to form the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Their grievances mirrored those of the strikers and exposed once again the FAA's ability to rely on technology and monopoly to avoid conceding control over the workplace.
Pels claims, "The FAA's handling of the strike is the most obvious proof of its outlook. Rather than reopen talks, the FAA instead maintained air travel using an overworked, under trained, skeletal workforce. It, too, denied the legitimacy of workers' grievances of, refused to negotiate working conditions, and dismissed the strikers as chronic complainers and crybabies. Deliberate underreporting to Congress and the public of near-misses and other safety violations since the strike also showed the extent to which the FAA was willing to violate its mandate to ensure safety in air travel in order to maintain control over its labor force (1995)." Perhaps the best evidence of the depth of the struggle between FAA management and the air traffic controllers for control of the workplace that I found was the remarkable similarities of the workers' complaints, despite years of congressional investigations, recommendations, and supposed improvements. Pels explains, "In 1986, the reviewing of some written comments stated that one of the things that was surprising was that you really could not discern a difference between the comments of a relatively new controller, one hired since the strike, and one who has been around the system for quite a few years. The tone and issues were quite the same, which surprised Congress a lot (1995)." Nevertheless, controllers clearly saw, if only indirectly, this problem and understood it as vitally linked to their broader expectations and aspirations of life and work. Thus inspired, in 1981 13,000 of them risked job security, income, and arrest to reassert this right, and less than ten years later a new group of workers created a union to better continue the struggle for control.
According to Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times, " The settlement with the United Postal Workers (UPS), in which the Teamsters won most of what they wanted on pensions, pay, and limiting the use of part time workers, will be as much of boon to labor, he said, as the failed air traffic controllers' strike of 1981 was a bust (1997)." Greenhouse said, "I remember in the 1980's when the air traffic controllers union was wiped out. For 15 years after that, employers all across the country cut jobs, cut pensions, cut health coverage, and stepped onto workers' rights. Working people were on the run, but not anymore. This strike marks a new era (1997)." I think what he is saying is totally true. Before this, workers were scared to go on strike in order to get their demands listened to. They didn't know if someone like Reagan was going to step in and totally wipeout any effort and possibility they may have had to receive higher wages for example. Now that we have come into a time where unions are more respected, especially by such political figures as Al Gore, they do not have to worry about not being sympathized with or having strong public support. Greenhouse also states, "The jobless rate is below 5 percent for the first time in more than two decades, making workers feel more secure about demanding higher wages (1997)." This issue is definitely playing a major role in unions more aggressive action in today's society.
All in all, the air traffic controllers' strike of 1981 has changed the way unions go about making demands to management. PATCO's constant arguing with the FAA seemed helpless for quite some time. Then came along NATCA and some of the same issues were come across even with many new workers who weren't even around at the time of the strike. This shows that the FAA's need to control their workforce was taken to too much of an extreme. With everything that is going on within the airline business today with the greater threat of terrorist attacks, stress levels are definitely going to be higher than normal, not only for the ATC's but also everyone else employed somehow through an airline or airport. Management is going to have to recognize all of these issues and have a much more compromising attitude with their union members. Union members may begin to demand more and more, but through all the advancement in technology there shouldn't be as big of a problem as you saw in 1981. We need to show that even these extreme threats upon our country will not affect the way we go about running our businesses and everyday lives today.
Greenhouse, S. (August 20, 1997). Analysis: Victory for Labor, but How Far Will It Go? New York Times. Retrieved 10/28/02 from the World Wide Web:
http://www.vale.edu/wrp/html/victory_but_how_far.htmlMclaughlin, M. (August 1999). Wall Street's dirty Secret: 1990's boom based on smashing of labor in the 1980's. Retrieved 10/28/02 from World Socialist Web Site, www. wsws.org
Pels, R. (1995). Volume Thirty-Seven - Essays in History: The Pressures of PATCO: Strikes and Stress in the 1980's. Retrieved 10/28/02, from the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia website:
Simonetta, J. (2000). Reagan Fires Air-Traffic Controllers. Retrieved 10/28/02 from Hoovers Online: The Business Network
Unknown Author (September 5, 1997). The Forward Rebalancing The Labor-Management Relationship. Retrieved 10/28/02 from the Workmen's Circle Arbeter Ring web site