professional standards re-view organization

Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (1968)

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization or PATCO was a labor union that once represented air traffic controllers in the United States in matters relating to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.

It was initially founded in 1968 with the assistance of attorney and pilot F. Lee Bailey, and succeeded in being recognized as a collective bargaining agent in 1969, after a brief labor stoppage referred to as the "sickout". To circumvent the federal law against strikes by government unions, numerous controllers called in sick. After a few days the federal courts intervened and most controllers went back to work by order of the court, but the government was forced to the bargaining table. The controllers won substantial pay raises (about 110% of their previous pay).

In the 1980 presidential election, PATCO (along with the Teamsters and the Air Line Pilots Association) departed from the usual organized labor practice of backing Democrats by endorsing Ronald Reagan.

PATCO Strike

On August 3, 1981 the union declared a strike, seeking better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour workweek. In doing so, the union violated a law {5 U.S.C. (Supp. III 1956) 118p.} that banned strikes by government unions. However, several government unions (including one representing employees of the Postal Service) had declared strikes in the intervening period without penalties. Ronald Reagan, however, declared the PATCO strike a "peril to national safety" and ordered them back to work under the terms of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Only 1,500 of the more than 13,000 of the controllers returned to work. PATCO hoped the strike would disrupt the national air system, and that they could use that as a bargaining tool. However Reagan gave union members 48 hours to return, knowing that Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis had secretly trained replacements. The airplanes kept flying at 80% of normal.

On August 5, following their refusal, Reagan fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored the order, and banned them from federal service for three years (which was later rescinded by the President). They were replaced initially with nonparticipating controllers, supervisors, staff personnel, some nonrated personnel, and in some cases by controllers transferred temporarily from other facilities. Some military controllers were also used until replacements could be trained. The union was decertified on October 22, 1981.

Some former striking controllers were allowed to reapply after 1996 and were rehired; they and their replacements are now represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which was organized in 1987 and had no connection with PATCO.

Current PATCO labor unions

In addition to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, two organizations now claim the name and part or all of the jurisdiction of the original PATCO: Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (AFSCME) and Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (2003).


  • Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization Records, 1968-1982. Georgia State University W. R. The University Library, Special Collections and Archives Department. 25.75 linear 52 boxes. Manuscript Collection No. L1986-45.

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