Last week, air traffic controllers across the country were furloughed as a result of budget cuts by the federal government known as the sequester. Delays mounted quickly, but service was speedily restored when Congress realized they were inconvenienced slightly. What would happen, though, if this went on longer?
And what would happen if the problem got worse? Not just controllers rotating an extra day to take off the week, but whole teams walking off? And what if the lasting effects could be felt not only for a few days, but for years? Would planes fall out of the sky? Would they just ram each other on the taxiway, fighting for a runway space? Or would everyone just sit in traffic the way they normally do on the highway?
Luckily for us, but unluckily for denizens of 1980s America, such a nightmare event has happened. For those that can’t remember, the PATCO Strike of 1981 changed the way workers in public service, labor relations, and air travel operate to this day.
First, a little background. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO, was created in 1968 to provide better working conditions for its members (the air traffic controllers, of course). Air traffic control is by its very nature an extremely stressful job. They’re the ones who sit in the airport tower, directing aircraft not only in and around airports, but around the globe. To give you an idea of what that looks like, check out this video of air traffic over the Northeast US:
Organized chaos, is what it resembles. Flights buzzing around like bees with hyperactivity disorders, yet each one more than likely carries hundreds of people. If an air traffic controller messes up, as they have in the past, dozens perish at the very least, yet they must keep their cool at all times.
An air traffic controller is the one who, after being told by pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger that US Airways Flight 1549 was going to attempt a landing in the Hudson River, responded not by screaming HOLY CRAP, as a normal person would, but calmly suggested perhaps a runway that wasn’t so liquidy and a bit more stable might be a bit more helpful:
Sure, we can imagine that these people are all smooth, like Clint Eastwood staring down a bear. But that’s not the reality, not the day-to-day. The day-to-day is far more stressful from that. An article that GQ published in 2009 explains exactly what they go through:
Air-traffic controllers are retiring at a rate of nearly 1,000 a year. A shriveling workforce, ever-increasing air traffic—somebody has to guide all those airplanes. You guys have to suck it up, the FAA says to the controllers. Work more hours, take fewer breaks—work six-day weeks if you have to. Yeah, you have to. Six-day workweeks are now the norm at the nation’s busiest radar facilities, which are notoriously hard to staff.
“Who cares,” ye of the Jalopnik commentariat say. “If you don’t like it, go on strike! What’s the point of having a union if you don’t even use it!”
Well, they would, if only they could. Yet the PATCO Strike of 1981 is exactly why they can’t.
In 1981 the industry of air traffic control was in a similar place to where it is today. Recently enacted airline deregulation led to a huge increase in the number of flights, yet the same amount of controllers before remained. People were feeling overwhelmed and overworked.
PATCO decided to step in. It had worked 11 years before, in 1970. Air traffic controllers back then called for a “sickout,” which is when everyone plans to call in with the flu all at the same time. Like when you tell your boss that you’re feeling a cold coming on in two weeks, just in time for Bonnaroo.
The 1970 plan worked so well that Congress introduced more automated systems, re-opened a training facility in Oklahoma City, hired more people, and gave everyone a raise. Winners all around, really.
By 1981, PATCO was feeling like it was in an even better position than it was before. Not only had the previous labor action gone according to plan, but now they had a strong ally in the White House. PATCO endorsed Republican California Governor Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election over Democratic President Jimmy Carter, an election that Reagan eventually won. Such endorsements usually translate into political capital, which is an incredibly useful bargaining chip when dealing in the public sector. Surely it would work, right?
No. Of course it didn’t work, otherwise we wouldn’t be writing about it today. Silly goose.
The whole thing went pretty disastrously for PATCO right from the get-go, right with their opening shot. Sure, when you’ve got pretty big negotiations you usually bring out the big guns, but even by 1980s union standards it seemed a bit unreasonable. When negotiations opened in February 1981, PATCO President Robert Poli asked for a $10,000 raise for everyone, the reduction from a five-day, 40-hour workweek to a four-day, 32-hour workweek, and full retirement benefits after 20 years of service.
Hot damn, that would be a good deal.
Of course they didn’t get it. Long story short, the Federal Aviation Administration rejected the offer, of course, responded with an offer of a pittance, of course, and by August of 1981, 95% of the union members voted to go on strike, of course.
As soon as the strike began, airlines reported losing $30 million a day. PATCO predicted insanity, with planes crashing into each other, hundreds, perhaps thousands (millions? billions?) of flights cancelled, and women and children crying and men gnashing their teeth.
The FAA began immediately to implement its contingency plan, which included asking airlines to voluntarily delay or cancel some flights, asking pilots to be a bit more vigilant, and calling in perhaps the best air traffic controllers in the world, the United States Air Force.
And after all that… nothing. Planes kept flying. Nobody crashed. Nobody died. Everybody still got to where they needed to go.
It spelled the end for PATCO. President Reagan, the man who the union thought was their friend, issued an extremely harsh ultimatum to the controllers: Return to work in 48 hours, or else you’ll all lose your jobs.
The controllers would be banished from working for the federal government- which means that most would be banished forever from the one livelihood they had ever known.
PATCO scoffed, thinking that there was no way President Reagan would go through with such a drastic measure. The President had public opinion on his side, however, as most people believed that the controllers going on strike threatened the public safety.
On August 5th, 1981, two days after the strike began, 11,345 air traffic controllers who refused to return to work lost their jobs and were, indeed, banned from working for the FAA ever again. On October 22nd, 1981, PATCO was decertified by the Federal Labor Relations Authority from its right to represent workers.
So what happened after that?
Again, not much of anything. 80% of flights were maintained, with the help of those controllers that did return to work and their supervisors. The FAA said it would only need about two years to get back up to speed, even though it turned out to be more like ten.
Some of the air traffic controllers were allowed to apply for their old jobs in 1986, and they even got another union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in 1987. In 1993, President Bill Clinton removed the ban on the old workers entirely.
So what would happen if we got another sequester, and air traffic controllers are furloughed again? Probably nothing. But maybe in the future, they could just work from home.