Twenty-five years ago today, Ronald Reagan set aside conventional political wisdom for the betterment of the country. In just 29 seconds, he told federal air traffic controllers to end their strike or find a new job. In so doing, he showed principled leadership, reminding the Washington elite that sound policy is indeed sound politics.
President Reagan took office in the cold of winter in 1981. The country was still reeling from the meltdown of President Nixon, the disastrous Carter presidency and a weak economy. Though Reagan had enjoyed electoral success, many Americans still simply thought of him as an actor who had been in the right place at the right time. The media-enhanced perception was that Ronald Reagan was a lightweight, and this view came at a time when “news” came almost exclusively from the big three TV broadcast networks or from radio news.
In 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization represented the nation’s 17,000 air traffic controllers. PATCO was familiar to Reagan. During the heat of the campaign, he had offered support to PATCO, arguing that the Carter administration had failed to act responsibly. If elected president, Reagan said, he would “take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety.” Reagan, like many others, felt the air traffic controllers had some legitimate complaints.
Robert Poli, the president of PATCO, was seemingly in a strong political position to see these complaints addressed and to gain new advantages for his membership. Organized labor was much stronger in 1981 than it is today, and the union’s political power ensured that many members of the U.S. Congress would be sympathetic. So when PATCO and the Federal Aviation Administration were unable to come to terms by August 1981, 13,000 PATCO members chose to strike.
Reagan was not in a good position. He was a new president in heated negotiations with Congress. Crossing organized labor was generally considered to be political suicide. Neither American business nor the public would tolerate a total disruption of the nation’s air transportation system. In fact, the public would sympathize with the controllers; who could argue with making the skies “safer”?
But Reagan saw the big picture.
The air traffic controllers were under an obligation not to strike. It was a condition of their employment, and it was the law. The nation, in the end, would gain little if anything from ignoring this.
On August 3, Reagan took just 29 seconds to explain his argument on national television:
“Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees: ‘I am not participating in any strike against the government of the United States or any agency thereof.’ It is for this reason that I must tell those that fail to report for duty this morning that they are in violation of the law and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their rights and will be terminated.”
Then the nation waited — but it didn’t wait long. On August 5, Reagan fired more than 11,000 controllers.
Many Americans admired Reagan’s handling of the situation, but the impact did not stop there. Edwin Meese, Reagan’s attorney general, has noted that this incident “convinced people in other capitals around the world, including Soviet leaders, that they had a person of real substance that they were dealing with here.”
One of Reagan’s greatest gifts was his ability to understand that sound policy is sound politics. He realized that the American people appreciated integrity and that they would support his decision if they knew that the controllers were violating an oath.
August 3, 1981, could have been a very different day. Reagan could have appointed commissions. He could have passed the buck to Congress.
But instead, he did what he knew was right. In the present political world of instant polling, flip-flopping and blame-placing, we need to remember that real leadership comes from deeply embedded principles that can be tapped to tackle the serious issues confronting us as a nation, as a state or as a local community.
Thomas W. Washburne is director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.