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Lessons from the PATCO strike

By Ed TownsendLabor correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 1981

Regardless of how it ends, the confrontation between the Reagan administration and striking air traffic controllers is likely to go into labor history books as a glaring breakdown in government collective bargaining.

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Studies will attempt to place the blame on government negotiators limited by official policies or on union bargaining committeemen unable to negotiate realistically in the face of very high expectations by their members.

On the surface, both sides appear at fault. The structure of government bargaining and the interrelationships between federal employees complicated negotiations. The specialized work of the air controller and thier grievances about job conditions and stress--many of which are legitimate--intensified bargaining problems. From the start of negotiations months ago, a very wide gap existed that neither side seemed able to bridge.

Sound collective bargaining requires compromises. The real stumbling block in the controllers' dispute has been the inability of the two parties to move away from polarized positions sufficiently to make an agreement possible.

Kenneth Moffet, acting head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service , said after talks broke down and the strike began, "This is a tough one. . . . I'm afraid this is going to last a long time."

The Reagan administration, he noted, wanted Robert E. Poli, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), and his union executive board to back down. Mr. Poli and the union, "riding high" because of the PATCO bargaining and strike solidarity, would not do so.

There is no apparent movement now to renew talks. In fact, with air controllers losing jobs and their union facing decertification, the legal bargaining relationship between the government and PATCO could be at an end. The controllers' contract with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expired March 15.

For a year or more before that date, the Carter administration foresaw that growing dissatisfaction among controllers indicated troubles ahead in 1981 bargaining. The FAA considered a strike or some other job action a "very distinct possibility."

Plans for coping with the controllers strike or slowdown were begun in January 1980. The FAA started drafting contingency plans for manning airport control towers with supervisory personnel. The Carter Justice Department prepared legal moves that included civil proceedings, court injunctions, contempt citations, criminal actions, fines, and steps to decertify PATCO as a union.

Clark H. Onstad, chief council of FAA under former President Jimmy Carter, said, "Incredibly detailed planning went on for more than a year because we just knew that a strike was going to happen."

Langhorne M. Bond, then head of the FAA, and Mr. Onstad said that they decided then that "the best way to handle such a situation was to let people know in advance exactly how we were going to operate. Predictability is important in a strike situation."

The FAA contingency plans were published in the Federal Register on Nov. 13, 1980, and letters to controllers warned of the penalty they could face -- including possible dismissal -- should they strike illegally.