Robert E. Poli, the president of the nation’s air traffic controllers union whose striking members were fired and replaced by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 in a high-stakes showdown pitting organized labor against federal law, died Sept. 15 at his home in Meridian, Idaho. He was 78. The strike by PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization), Reagan’s subsequent breaking of the union and the hiring of replacement workers were among the most significant job actions of their time, said Joseph A. McCartin, a professor at Georgetown University and a specialist on labor and social history.
- Bart Barnes, The Washington Post; photo by George Tames/The New York Times
They “helped to define labor relations for the rest of the century and even into the 21st century,” he said, turning public sentiment away from striking as a legitimate labor tactic and further emboldening employers in the private sector to permanently replace striking workers. McCartin likened the PATCO strike in its historic significance to the Pullman Railroad strike of 1894 — which was put down by federal troops — and the Homestead Steel strike of 1892, which collapsed after the intervention of state militia and a union vote to resume work. The PATCO work stoppage began Aug. 3, 1981, when at least 12,000 of the nation’s 17,000 air traffic controllers defied federal law and walked off their jobs, seeking higher pay, shorter hours, better equipment and improved working conditions in a long-simmering labor dispute.
Click here for the rest of the Post report, here for Poli’s New York Times obituary and here for McCartin’s blog post; McCartin is the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America