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date: 21 April 2024

The PATCO Strike and the Decline of Laborlocked

The PATCO Strike and the Decline of Laborlocked

  • Joseph A. McCartinJoseph A. McCartinDepartment of History, Georgetown University


In 1981, US President Ronald Reagan decisively broke the illegal strike of the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic controllers, which had been organized by their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). Because of its timing, its notoriety, and its impact in encouraging private sector employers to follow Reagan’s example and break strikes, the PATCO debacle contributed significantly to the continuing decline of the labor movement in the decades following 1981.

The breaking of PATCO took place at a crucial inflection point in US labor history. Changing political, ideological, and economic trends made unions vulnerable as the 1980s began. In this volatile context, the PATCO strike garnered unprecedented attention and enormous influence. The walkout, which started on August 3, 1981, took place in every US state and territory, and Americans watched it play out in real time on live television. They saw President Reagan warn strikers that since they were government workers their walkout was illegal, issuing an ultimatum that they would be fired in forty-eight hours if they did not return to work. Then they saw Reagan fire more than eleven thousand strikers who defied his order, replacing them with military controllers and hastily trained substitutes, all with strong public backing.

This event shocked rank-and-file unionists, frightened union leaders, and encouraged private sector employers to emulate Reagan in their own dealings with unions. Thus, following the PATCO strike, numerous private sector employers took advantage of weak protections for strikers in US labor law to break strikes in their industries. Workers’ willingness to strike in order to advance or defend workplace standards plummeted thereafter. Declining labor militancy in turn exacerbated the continuous decline in union membership after 1981, leaving the union movement in a deepening crisis by the early 21st century.


  • Labor and Working Class History

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