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Former Air Traffic Controllers, Author Talk about 1981 Firings

The PATCO Legacy and the Future of Collective Bargaining

From left to right, Joseph McCartin, associate professor of history; Jim Stakem, PATCO striker; Kenneth Moffett, former director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service; Stanley Gordon, founding member of PATCO; Rick Jones, co-founder of the Coalition of Black Controllers; and John Leyden, former president of PATCO.

October 19, 2011 – Five former air traffic controllers who went on strike and were subsequently fired by then-President Ronald Reagan came to campus Oct. 18 for a talk with a Georgetown history professor who recently wrote a book on the topic.

Joseph A. McCartin, associate professor of history and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, examines the strike and its impact on current American labor politics in his new book Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (Oxford University Press).

He spoke about the book to a Georgetown audience in a talk sponsored by the Kalmanovitz Initiative.

A Momentous Decision

On Aug. 3, 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) declared a strike in an effort to attain better working conditions.

In a shock to those who follow labor relations, Reagan told PATCO that any controller who did not return to work would be fired.

His decision translated into more than 11,000 air traffic controllers losing their jobs and PATCO was decertified.

Residual Effects

McCartin said the impact of that decision is still felt 30 years later.

Reagan’s firing of the PATCO strikers set a precedent for many prominent, private-sector employers to hire new employees “and run their businesses right through strikes,” McCartin explained.

The 1981 decision also led to fewer strikes by the end of the 20th century.

“Workers, by and large, no longer felt that they could strike in the United States,” the professor said. “Today we live in a nation where the institution of collective bargaining, one of the great American innovations of the 20th century, is in crisis.

“This is a dangerous [situation] because as we struggle in the shadow of the Great Recession, inequality is rising,” he added. “And as inequality grows, so does anger and frustration.”

Firsthand Account

McCartin moderated a panel discussion with Stanley Gordon, founding member of PATCO; Rick Jones, co-founder of the Coalition of Black Controllers; John Leyden, former president of PATCO; Kenneth Moffett, former director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service; and Jim Stakem, PATCO striker from Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center.

The panel recalled what it was like to work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during the time of the PATCO strike as well as their motivations for joining PATCO and eventually striking.

“When you make a pledge to someone …when the other side constantly breaks their pledge to you, it’s no crime to walk away and break your pledge,” said Stakem. “And that’s what they [the FAA] did to us. We didn’t have any reason not to break that pledge, and I still feel that way today.”

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