It was in recongition of this that the Congress passed a law forbidding strikes by government employees against the public safety. Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees, a sworn affidavit, when they accepted their jobs: “I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the Government of the United States or any agency thereof.”
It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.
Ronald Reagan’s first year as president continued to be eventful. On August 3, 1981, federal air traffic controllers went on strike. They were seeking better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour workweek. However, by the union declaring a strike, they were violating a law that banned strikes by government unions. Ronald Reagan declared the PATCO strike a “peril to national safety” and ordered them back to work under the terms of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Only 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers returned to work. Reagan held a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, where he stated that if the air traffic controllers “do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”
Even though members of President Reagan’s cabinet were worried about political backlash, Reagan fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored his order to return to work, busting the PATCO union. He banned them from federal service for life. According to Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University Law School, the move gave Americans a new view of Reagan, who “sent a message to the private employer community that it would be all right to go up against the unions”.
The FAA then had to hire and train enough air traffic controllers to replace those that had been fired. This was challenging because it normally took 3 years to train a new controller. The fired controllers were initially replaced with nonparticipating controllers, supervisors, staff personnel, some nonrated personnel, and in some cases by controllers transferred temporarily from other facilities. Some military controllers were also used until replacements could be trained. The FAA had initially claimed that staffing levels would be restored within two years; however, it would take closer to ten years before the overall staffing levels returned to normal. PATCO was decertified on October 22, 1981. Some former striking controllers were allowed to reapply after 1986 and were rehired; they and their replacements are now represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which was organized in 1987 and had no connection with PATCO.
The lifetime ban that President Reagan placed on the striking air traffic controllers was rescinded by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Here are Ronald Reagan’s Remarks and Question and Answer Session held on August 3, 1981.