PATCO, Permanent Replacement, and the Loss of Labor’s Strike Weapon

Source: Joseph A. McCartin, Perspectives on Work, Summer 2006, Volume 10, no. 1

August 3, 2006, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of an event that many in organized labor would prefer to forget. On that date in 1981, more than 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) walked off their jobs with the Federal Aviation Administration. When 11,325 of them refused to heed a back-to-work order issued by President Ronald Reagan and end their illegal walkout within forty-eight hours, they were discharged and permanently replaced.

In the immediate aftermath of the PATCO strike, many commentators predicted it would mark a turning point in the history of U.S. labor relations. A quarter century later, the strike’s importance is even easier to grasp. Just as the infamous Homestead strike set the tone for labor-capital conflict at the end of the nineteenth century, the PATCO strike helped establish the pattern for labor relations in the late twentieth century. Since that ill-fated walkout, organized labor has been in a state of continuous decline.

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