When Ronald Reagan took the oath of
office in January 1981, he put forward in his inaugural
address that government was not the solution to the
nation's difficulties, it was the major cause. But
while the nation was clamoring for a change in tone,
in light of the depressing Carter years, it was still
unclear just what kind of leader Reagan would be.
on March 30, just two months into his presidency,
Reagan was shot by John Hinckley. The president's
brave handling of the near fatal assassination attempt
helped enhance his standing among the people. Following
a series of congressional victories, his image would
soar even further that summer.
American aviation system employed some 17,000 air
traffic controllers, organized under the Professional
Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). The
members were upset that the wage increase they had
been offered was below what they sought. They also
argued that the stress of the job demanded a shorter
workweek and earlier retirement options on top of
the extra cash. Some of their grievances were legitimate,
such as the plea for a more modernized air traffic
control system. And, since earlier in the century
the American people had a sympathetic ear when it
came to union matters - after all, at one time over
60% of workers in this country were part of organized
labor - it was assumed by PATCO that they would win
over the peoples' support.
one thinks of the job of an air traffic controller,
certainly the issue of stress is at the top of shared
concerns. Just one mistake in judgment could cause
the death of hundreds of passengers. In this respect
the work of a controller was unlike any other.
so it was that on August 3, 1981, 13,000 of the 17,000
controllers went on strike. In the immediate aftermath
of the strike announcement, there was bedlam in the
entire U.S. transportation network. Management scrambled
to fill the slots (controlling air traffic themselves,
in most cases) and the airlines were able to operate
at only 70% capacity. But if PATCO thought they were
going to have their way with President Reagan because
he would be too concerned about the financial impact
a prolonged strike could have on the American economy,
well, they were about to find out otherwise.
members were in total defiance of federal law as there
was a ban on strikes by government employees. In fact,
each PATCO member had taken an oath not to strike
when they were first hired. It was Reagan time.
hero had always been Calvin Coolidge. Both believed
in the virtues of hard work, frugality, and obligation
to duty. Once, as governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge
had turned the National Guard loose on a strike by
Boston's policemen. [This one action had basically
earned him the vice presidential slot on the 1920
ticket.] Coolidge and Reagan felt that once you took
oaths, you were held to them. So Reagan acted quickly.
PATCO had supported the president in the 1980 campaign.
But, as Reagan biographer Dinesh D'Souza wrote, "(while)
political calculation might dictate that a new president
should work out an amicable settlement rather than
alienate a powerful union that supported him and risk
paralyzing the country's civil aviation system," Reagan
didn't buy that argument.
his meetings with advisers, Reagan quoted Coolidge,
"There is no right to strike against the public safety
by anybody, anywhere, any time." With the backing
of transportation secretary Drew Lewis, Reagan gave
the controllers 48 hours to return to work. 48 hours
later most of them were fired. Reagan observed in
his memoirs that his action "convinced people who
might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said."
Just as importantly, on a far bigger stage, Reagan's
decision also helped show the Soviets that he was
a decisive, no-nonsense leader.
leader, Robert Poli, still thought that he could shut
down the nation's airports and that the administration
would have to give in to the union's demands. But
instead, the government scrambled to hire more controllers
(many from the military) and the disruption to air
traffic proved to be brief. And amazingly, the American
people stood with Reagan in large numbers. It wasn't
too long before air traffic was back to normal; fears
of disaster having been unwarranted.
on the second thought, just imagine what would have
happened had one accident occurred during this time.
The blood would have been on many hands, including
D'Souza (a Reagan aide at the time) notes, the president
adopted this stern course of action without consulting
any polls. Yet, much to the surprise of many on his
staff (who were often incredulous at some of his actions),
the American people supported him because they were
convinced that principle mattered, especially in the
face of threats and intimidation. By this one incident,
which set the tone for the whole presidency, "Reagan
proved that the right thing to do can also be politically
took two years to fully train the new controllers,
but we all survived, disruptions were few and PATCO
was dead. The American labor movement had suffered
its worst defeat in decades and the balance of power
in labor disputes shifted towards management. Reagan's
image as a courageous leader was burnished.
Heritage: The Presidents," Michael Beschloss
"The Presidents," edited by Henry Graff
"The American Century," Harold Evans
"Ronald Reagan," Dinesh D'Souza
In light of the death of Ronald Reagan, commentator
George Will had the following thoughts on the president's
handling of the PATCO situation.
more than two astonishing decades on, it.is reasonable
to conclude that Reagan's fracas with the controllers
had huge economic consequences, domestic and foreign.
It altered basic attitudes about relations between
business and labor in ways that quickly redounded
to the benefit of the nation, and not least the benefit
of American workers. It produced a cultural shift,
a new sense of what can be appropriate in business
management: layoffs can be justifiable even when a
company is profitable, if the layoffs will improve
productivity and profitability..
action against the air-traffic controllers came on
the eve of the explosive growth of information technologies,
and some astute people, including Alan Greenspan,
believe that Reagan's action facilitated that growth."
I first did the PATCO piece about 3 ½ years ago and
a few months later received an e-mail from Robert
Poli's son. Needless to say, he was none too pleased.
Mr. Poli asserted that the PATCO "strike had nothing
to do with (his father) and everything to do with
the safety of the passengers and of the careers of
the air traffic controllers."
son continued: "Let's set the facts straight. During
the period the American people were sick of unions
after a long baseball strike and the weather from
August through December was near perfect for the entire
country. The military controllers were not properly
trained yet were given the responsibility to control
10,000 lives per controller per day. Who was putting
who at risk?"
Poli then went on to heavily criticize the Reagan
presidency in general, so I imagine he isn't lining
up to praise the president this week. That's alright.
It's a free country.