Bob Butterworth, was a PATCO leader in the San Francisco Bay Area when the strike occurred on August 3, 1981. He was fired for defying President Ronald Reagan's ultimatum. He later regained employment with the FAA as an Air Traffic Controller after President Bill Clinton lifted the ban on the rehiring of PATCO strikers, and he became an activist in the union that succeeded PATCO at the FAA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Butterworth, known as "Pres," to many of his PATCO-era friends and colleagues, was one of the most important subjects I interviewed for Collision Course. In a guest blog written for this Labor Day he gives his perspective on PATCO as a product of the turbulent 1960.
The Air traffic controllers strike in 1981 by members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) has become the battle cry for Unionism both private and public. The reaction to this strike by Ronald Reagan with the firing of 11,000 controllers has become a rallying point for union organizing. So where did it all start?
Prior to 1968 most Air traffic Controllers were former military controllers that had become all too familiar with the military management style and were not surprised to find a continuation of that dictatorship manner of supervision present when they were hired by the FAA. It was dealt with in a “What choice do we have” kind of mentality with an added fear of the consequences of speaking out against such demeaning and counter-productive supervision. “After all, we work for the government, we can’t organize!” This feeling was prevalent among many government employees well beyond Air Traffic Controllers, at that time.
After a significant period of time of not hiring new controllers leading up to the mid 60’s, the FAA began to hire once again. The difference this time was the type of former military controller entering the work force had changed considerably. The attitudes, influenced by the Vietnam War, the ongoing demonstrations and unrest of the times and an overall feeling that things need to change, made for a group of new hires who were not so willing to settle for business as usual. They expected and were willing to fight for the right to be treated in a fair and respectful manner and were willing to risk whatever was necessary to change the way government managers and supervisors ruled the world of air traffic control.
In 1968, a few of these new kids on the block decided the FAA way of doing business needs to change and took the courageous first steps to organize the Air Traffic Controllers, a step the FAA never saw coming. The organization grew quickly and from 1968 to 1981 changes took place within the FAA that most insiders had viewed as impossible. In 1981 Ronald Reagan, thinking he had put an end to union organization within the FAA forever, fired this group and destroyed PATCO. The FAA immediately reverted to their old ways and in only a few short years the controllers organized once again with the formation of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Proving once and for all that without a union the FAA cannot be trusted to what is right!
The 60’s were a time of revolt, demonstrations, riots, war and a time when workers decided that private or public sector, they had a right to be treated fairly and they were going to do what was necessary to see that happen. Thinking back to those times, it was predictable that in happened then. I was 24 years old when I joined PATCO in 1968 and remain proud as hell of that decision to this day!