On Aug. 5, 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 air traffic controllers after a two-day strike.
Only seven months into his administration and less than a month after appointing the first woman to the Supreme Court, the first great political crisis of Reagan's presidency occurred when 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike. With their federal contracts expired, the air traffic controllers walked off the job on Aug. 3.
Recognizing the stressful, demanding nature of the profession, Reagan had offered an 11 percent increase in wages, though this was not enough for PATCO. Among other concessions, the union demanded a 100 percent pay increase that would have amounted to $700 million for taxpayers at a time when Reagan was trying to trim the federal budget. Reagan rejected the demands and the stage was set for a showdown.
The strike proved difficult for Reagan for a couple of reasons. First of all, PATCO had been one of the few unions that had supported Reagan's bid for the presidency the year before, and he counted friends among the union's leadership. Second, Reagan himself was a former union leader. An actor by profession, Reagan had served as the president of the Screen Actor's Guild in the ’40s and ’50s.
Reagan told his transportation secretary, Drew Lewis, “You tell the leaders of PATCO that as a former union president I am the best friend they've ever had in the White House.”
PATCO's strike, as it turned out, was illegal. Under a provision of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, Reagan ordered the controllers back to work, giving them a 48-hour deadline. Some of the controllers returned to work, but the majority did not. Reagan echoed the words of Calvin Coolidge when he told Lewis, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at any time.”
As former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan writes in her book, “When Character was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan,” “What (Reagan) didn't tell reporters ... is that a strike by American air traffic controllers carried real national security implications. PATCO in effect controlled the skies, and American AWACS bombers that might on a moment's notice be ordered to head for Moscow were in those skies every day.”
These civilian air traffic controllers played a key role in America's defense system, and by walking off their jobs threatened America's potential to respond to a Soviet attack, or offer a proper deterrence through strength. Though union leaders remained silent on the issue as a bargaining tool, they no doubt understood the national security dimension of their actions.
In a show of true bipartisanship, congressional Democrats stood behind the president. Lewis phoned Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts who told him, “I'll help get you Democratic support.” To be sure, some Democrats made some unflattering noise, but no major Democratic action was taken against the president for political advantage. The president of the AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland, also offered support to the administration.
When the 48 hours had expired on Aug. 5, Reagan remained true to his word and fired the striking controllers. Reagan said, “I'm sorry. I'm sorry for them. I certainly take no joy out of this.”
In order to fill the need for air traffic controllers, many airport support and military personnel were pressed into service. A significant number of flights had to be decreased during the crisis, though they quickly returned to levels enjoyed before the strike. Additionally, the fired controllers were banned from federal employment, though eventually this order was rescinded.
In his book “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” biographer Lou Cannon quotes Washington insider Donald Rumsfeld, “You had a president who was new to the office and not taken seriously by a lot of people. It showed a decisiveness and an ease with his instincts ....” Cannon goes on to quote Reagan who later said that the episode proved “an important juncture for our new administration. I think it convinced people who might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said.”
Noonan writes of perhaps the most important consequence of the strike: “The Soviet Union was watching. They saw how the American president dealt with a national security issue, saw that his rhetorical toughness could be matched by tough action. They absorbed this, and thought about it. That's why George Shultz, Reagan's last and most effective secretary of state, said that the PATCO decision was the most important foreign policy decision Ronald Reagan ever made.”
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]