The PATCO Fiasco: The Air Traffic Controllers Strike
The case study is a great example of how labor relations can deteriorate, causing widespread inconvenience to taxpayers as well as taking up jurisdiction time. It showcases how collective bargaining can back fire and lead to upheaval in the employees’ lives as well as the system that they sought to change for their own benefit.
To begin with, let us consider the background of the strike. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) was a union of federal employees that took care of the movement of airplanes across the United States of America. It was not the only union that did this, but it was one of the very few that had supported Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign – and hence, in view of the long standing ‘patronage’ trend, wanted favoritism from the government.
The demands made by PATCO may not have been completely unreasonable, even though they were bound to be quite expensive if they were granted. These included monetary benefits, work duration cuts and higher retirement perks. It is true that the job of air traffic controllers is a stressful one, but to call for such drastic increases in costs to the exchequer, they had dragged too heavy a fish on to their boat – one that would eventually sink it.
Instead of backing down, the government met the situation almost with alacrity. The move of recalling retired air traffic controllers and using military personnel played out well. In gaining public support, President Reagan pulled off a gamble by taking the issue to the people through television. This got the general public on the side of the government, with the welcome result of PATCO losing any support it could have garnered. The points that President Reagan made against the union were in accordance with the labor laws of America, as mentioned next.
As Reagan pointed out, being federal government employees, the air traffic controllers should have continued doing their jobs while they called for their demands to be met. They should have realized that they were all chosen as competent employees in accordance with all existent laws such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 (which outlaws discrimination on any grounds) and were at their positions on the basis of the classification schema (formulated by the 1919 Congressional Joint Commission on Reclassification of Salaries) which sought to reduce friction and ensure smooth running of public sector enterprises, including safe and sound air travel.
The steps the government took counter acted the stubborn position of the striking PATCO employees. Even though a small number returned to work under fear of losing their jobs, most were overconfident in their importance to the system. Little did they know that the positions they were occupying in a governmental hierarchy had been developed with a focus on eliminating irreplaceability of people – as long as another person filled the position, the incumbent didn’t matter! This is what broke the back of their strike, and even appeals for support to other unions …