Air traffic controllers strike reference adds to tension

  • Written by Joe Boyle

The verbal assaults continue between Gov. Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-22nd) while the budget stalemate goes on and on. But something was said last week that caught my eye.

In one published report, Rauner commented after Madigan complained about his tactics. The governor told Republicans at a dinner that he apologizes about the rough times everyone has gone through.

“If we have to do what Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers… And we sort of have to do a do-over and shut things down for a little while, it’s what we’re going to do.”

Really? Now, this is what this is coming down to? We are going to revisit the air traffic controllers strike during the Reagan administration? How serious is Rauner about governing for all the people in the state of Illinois?

Let’s turn back the clock a few decades. Back in 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. The air traffic controllers were fired two days after their union, PATCO, declared a strike. The union demanded a pay raise, a shorter work week, and better working conditions. Some historians have said that this laid the groundwork for today’s assault on labor.

Joseph McCartin, author of “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America,” said that the labor force was still seen as a central force in American government back then. Both the Democratic and Republican parties felt that way. Reagan was in the first months of his presidency and was in the process of introducing his revolution. Reagan, according to McCartin, wanted to go before the pre-New Deal era. He wanted to reorganize the relationship between the government and labor movement.

The PATCO strike happened at a time when Reagan felt it was necessary to flex his muscles. When the air controllers went on strike on Aug. 3, he told the strikers to return to work within 48 hours. When they did not comply, he fired them. He later permanently replaced them.

Ironically, the union actually supported Reagan for president. PATCO began because of a disaster when a midair collision occurred over New York City in 1960. Improvements had to occur during that period and they began to take place. Working conditions were actually improving in the 1970s. But there still were some major issues. The main problems, according to union officials, were the working hours of employees and pay.

Move the clock back to today and the tensions are high between the Federal Aviation Administration and the union that replaced PATCO – the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The union and the FAA cannot agree on a new contract. So, the FAA will impose its own contract, which includes major concessions.

Union leaders have said that the concessions will make it harder for air traffic controllers to do their job. New hires will be paid far less than they are today, according to the union.

So, I guess we are going back in time. Rauner seems to be comfortable in dragging this deadlock out so that he can ram his “turnaround agenda” through. In the meantime, grade schools, high schools, colleges and universities are struggling. Some institutions, like Chicago State University, are struggling more than others.

Rauner wants to see wages readjusted and unions with less influence. What the governor is actually saying is that he would like to see most employees working for less. He has also called for an end to collective bargaining. And what that can accomplish is that employees will be making less and struggling to get by. That hardly seems like progress.

Look, there is plenty of blame to pass around here. Somewhere along the line there has to be some compromises. Madigan and Rauner continuing to trade insults are not getting us anywhere.

But for the governor to bring up the air traffic controller strike in 1981 takes on a combative tone. He essentially is saying that he is going to wait it out with the idea that the Democrats will eventually be on their knees.

I don’t think that is going to happen. In the meantime, the budget impasse is in its 10th month with no end in sight.

Joe Boyle is the editor of The Reporter. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .