Dwayne A. Threadford, a striking air-traffic controller, wears a provocative T-shirt while picketing the FAA, Aug. 4, 1981.
Dwayne A. Threadford, a striking air-traffic controller, wears a provocative T-shirt while picketing the FAA, Aug. 4, 1981. Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS
Striking air-traffic controllers picket outside of the FAA headquarters in Fremont, Calif., Aug. 4, 1981.
In August 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired thousands of unionized air-traffic controllers for illegally going on strike, an event that marked a turning point in labor relations in America, with lasting repercussions. In the decades before 1981, major work stoppages averaged around 300 per year; today, that number is fewer than 30. A look at key events before the strike, and after:
1968: The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization is created.
February 1981: New contract negotiations open between PATCO and the Federal Aviation Administration, which employs the air-traffic controllers. Citing safety concerns, PATCO calls for a reduced 32-hour work week, a $10,000 pay increase for all air-traffic controllers and a better benefits package for retirement. Contract negotiations with the FAA stall.
Aug. 3, 1981: About 13,000 PATCO members go on strike after unsuccessful contract negotiations. In doing so, the union technically violates a 1955 law that bans strikes by government unions. (Several government unions had previously declared strikes without penalties.) President Ronald Reagan declares the PATCO strike a "peril to national safety" and orders the controllers back to work.
Reagan warns that striking is illegal for public employees, and that anyone who does not return to work within 48 hours will be terminated. A federal judge finds PATCO President Robert Poli to be in contempt of court, and the union is ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for each day its members are on strike. About 7,000 flights are canceled.
Aug. 5, 1981: Most striking air-traffic controllers are fired. Reagan bans them from ever being rehired by the FAA. They are initially replaced by controllers, supervisors and staff personnel not participating in the strike and in some cases, by military controllers.
Aug. 17, 1981: The FAA begins accepting applications for new air-traffic controllers.
Oct. 22, 1981: The Federal Labor Relations Authority de-certifies PATCO. Later, new air-traffic controllers, hired in the wake of the strike, organize a new union to represent them, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
June 19, 1987: NATCA is certified as the sole bargaining unit for air-traffic controllers employed by the FAA.
Aug. 12, 1993: President Clinton ends the prohibition on rehiring any air-traffic controller who went on strike in 1981. (To date, the FAA has rehired about 850 PATCO strikers.)
Oct. 3, 1996: Congress passes the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act, which codifies NATCA's ability to bargain collectively with the FAA for wages and personnel matters.