Suicide By Reagan

On August 5th, 1981 the strike by the federal union PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) came to an end with President Ronald Reagan making good on his threat to fire anyone who didn’t report to work after a 48-hour deadline. In the end over 11,000 were terminated and a few months later PATCO was officially decertified.


In liberal mythology this was an act of ruthless union-busting, an egregious harm a cold-blooded Reagan inflicted on the American labor movement in the service of his vision of rolling back workers’ rights. The truth is slightly more nuanced than that.


Howard Zinn’s Reagan vs The Unions

Ronald Reagan was not just an actor before his political life, but also the president of the Screen Actors Guild. He led its first ever strike and three in total for Hollywood’s most powerful union. In his run against the incumbent President Jimmy Carter he did not hesitate to seek labor endorsements. In an ironic twist of fate one endorsement he won was from PATCO.


Jimmy Carter lost in a landslide. Once more for fun: Jimmy Carter lost in a landslide. With Ronald Reagan in the White House in time for PATCO’s contract negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration, the union went big. They asked for a $10,000 across-the-board raise for all workers, a 32-hour work week citing safety and stress concerns, and generous benefit increases to boot.


This was forty years ago so some adjustments need to be made for inflation (Editor’s Note: In the midst of 2021’s rampant inflation we’re going to pray future Flappr readers aren’t left wondering why unions were striking over enough money to purchase a single pack of bacon.) In 1981 the air traffic controllers were making between $20,000 and $49,000, which in today’s dollars is between $61,000 and $147,000. Adjusted for inflation, that $10,000 they wanted for every single controller was just shy of an eye-popping $30,000.


The FAA counter-offered, but while it was more generous than typical government raises, it was a fraction of the demand on wages with no cut in hours. As a federal union, it was illegal for the air traffic controllers to strike and they’d actually sworn oaths never to do so. Despite that, they reasoned they had the upper hand because if they didn’t show up the planes weren’t going anywhere. PATCO’s members overwhelmingly voted to strike.


They counted on Reagan to be passive. They counted wrong.



President Reagan declared their strike illegal and gave them 48 hours to return to work or be terminated. Furthermore, while PATCO had bet on being irreplaceable, Reagan’s FAA had a contingency plan. Drawing workers out of retirement, pulling staff from the military, and prioritizing flights got to 50% of traffic without any safety incidents on the first day of the strike. By the second day of the strike, that was at 75%. PATCO’s bet had failed spectacularly.


Ultimately the 48-hour deadline came and went with 11,345 union members losing their jobs after refusing to return to work. However, the story of PATCO is not of Reagan ruthlessly bulldozing a union. He offered them a 5% raise and a chance to keep their jobs. Reagan believed in the right of workers to organize but drew a moral distinction between the private sector and essential federal employees striking against the public.


The story of PATCO is about union overreach. The massive raise and substantial cut in hours they refused to budge on were completely unrealistic. Grounding planes meant bringing the American economy to a standstill, an untenable position. The union thought they could hold the economy hostage by going on an illegal strike and Reagan proved them wrong by keeping planes in the skies and enforcing the law.



Beyond having no legal right to strike, the fact is PATCO was not fighting to secure basic rights. They had comfortable middle-class salaries; they weren’t exactly fighting to keep bread on the table with their demand for a $30,000 raise. The American people implicitly recognized this. Polling at the time showed the public never supported the strikers and thought Reagan did the right thing.


Organized labor’s decline had begun before 1981, but it was dramatically hastened as the private sector took a lesson from PATCO when dealing with unions. The liberal mythology of the PATCO strike makes Reagan into a moustache-twirling villain who mortally wounded organized lab


That ignores PATCO stubbornly picking an unwinnable, illegal battle with the President of the United States and passing on the out he offered. The air traffic controllers’ disastrously misguided overreach inadvertently revealed two very important lessons that would resonate in the years to follow. The first lesson- that labor had become something of a paper tiger and there was an alternative to surrender in the face of greedy demands.


The other? Don't fuck with Reagan.

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