OTD in History… August 5, 1981, President Ronald Reagan fires striking air traffic controllers

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history August 5, 1981, President Ronald Reagan begins firing the 11,359 air-traffic controllers who ignored his order to return to work after illegal striking two days before, causing the cancellation of thousands of flights. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization or PATCO’s nearly 13,000 members went on strike on August 3, after the government refused to give them a $10,000 raise and shorten their workweek from five to four days, a request of $770 million. The government counter offer only included a package of $40 million, generous but not enough according to PATCO. The strike on August 3, paralyzed air travel, with 7,000 flights canceled. Reagan gave PATCO strikers an ultimatum, return to work within 48 hours or be fired.

Robert E. Poli, the president of PATCO had the union endorsed Reagan as the Republican presidential nominee in the 1980 election. Now a federal judge found Poli in contempt for the strike, fining him $1,000 and the union a million each day of the strike, the rate based on a Congressional law passed in 1955 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1971. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis suggested to Reagan that he fired the air traffic controllers, and on August 5, Reagan did just that. Reagan later recognized the significance of his action early in his administration calling it “an important juncture for our new administration. I think it convinced people who might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said.” (Cannon, 438) Reagan banned the strikers for life, while the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified the union just two months later on October 22.

Historian Joseph A. McCartin and author of “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America, argues, “Ronald Reagan not only transformed his presidency but also shaped the world of the modern workplace.” McCartin claims the move “polarized our politics in ways that prevent us from addressing the root of our economic troubles: the continuing stagnation of incomes despite rising corporate profits and worker productivity.” Reagan’s decisive move would both alter the influence of labor unions stripping them of their bargaining power and showed the Soviet Union his strong leadership establishing him as a force to be reckoned with in the Cold War.


McCartin, Joseph A. Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Public Affairs, 2000.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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