Remembering the PATCO Strike, 30 Years Later
Tuesday, July 19, 2011

An Interview with Bob Butterworth:

Bob Butterworth began his air traffic control career in 1967 at Edwards TRACON, which is now High Desert TRACON. When Butterworth first heard about organizing efforts among controllers in New York, he was instrumental in bringing that movement from coast to coast. In 1968, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) became a reality.

In remembering the PATCO strike of 1981, and the sacrifices that were made by those Brothers and Sisters, we asked Bob to recall that time and the lessons we can take away from it now 30 years later.

NATCA INSIDER: Bob, now 30 years later, what are your most vivid recollections of that time before, during and after the strike in 1981? What was that time like and what was the atmosphere like inside your facility?
BOB BUTTERWORTH: The time before the strike was exciting and hectic to say the least. I was hired by the FAA in December of 1967 and joined PATCO in the spring of 1968. I had heard a rumor about a guy in New York, Mike Rock, that was starting a new organization for Air Traffic Controllers. I sent Mike a letter asking for information. He sent back a package with a cover letter that began, “Dear Facility President.” That’s how he recruited! I was the first facility president at Edwards TRACON before I was even a member. The next 23 years were filled with sick-outs, slow-downs and organizing. 

It all began with a meeting of PATCO activists in Chicago after the vote fell short on the night of June 21. Poli had accepted the FAA’s offer but as a result of the vocal display in Chicago, the Executive Board decided to recommend to the membership that they reject the proposal. The activists in attendance, primarily facility representatives, left Chicago with a renewed sense of urgency to get the required 80 percent. Numerous meetings were held around the country with a “This might be our last chance” theme. An FAA offer rejection rate of 95 percent was obtained as a result of these rallies and, with that, Poli set a new strike date of Aug. 3. At the time I was the FacRep at Bay TRACON, and on Aug. 3, we took 100 percent of our workforce on strike. I was busy, busy, busy. The atmosphere at the Bay was, let’s go!

Once the strike went down, I was filled with disappointment and sadness. It was difficult watching my Brothers and Sisters pay such a tremendous cost for simply not going to work. Valerie and I got through it okay and eventually got rehired in 1997.

INSIDER: How significant do you think it is that PATCO was decertified under President Reagan and only six years later NATCA was formed, still under his time in office?

BUTTERWORTH:  The reality is that all federal employees are subject to a power-influenced, bureaucratic, self-serving management style. The only available restricting influence on this military style supervision is unionism. Once PATCO was gone the FAA wasted no time resorting to their pre-union tactics. With no restraints on the behavior of the FAA, it was predictable that Air Traffic Controllers would need to unionize once again -- proving, in my view, that PATCO was much more than a militant group of renegades; it was an organization that was forced into existence by the demeaning management style of the FAA. 

INSIDER: What correlation did you see between the administration, agency and overall atmosphere during the PATCO strike and the administration, agency and anti-union atmosphere during the White Book years?

BUTTERWORTH: Reagan needed a small union, one that the public would be unfamiliar with and one that he could beat down as a demonstration of his power. The consensus was that unions had gained too much power/influence and he wanted to make a point that would be heard loud and clear. The postal workers were flexing their muscles but they were too large and the public would not stand for a disruption in service of that magnitude. Along comes the PATCO strike at exactly the right time. PATCO met all the requirements. Similarly, NATCA was in the right place at the right time for Marion Blakey to flex her muscles and prove her power to an administration that she knew would be impressed with her accomplishment. Again, small union, no public sympathy and a loophole that allowed her to further her attempt to destroy NATCA which would be a feather in her cap. (I think she wanted to be just like Reagan when she grew up!)

INSIDER: When Ronald Reagan told PATCO that if they didn't go back to work within 48 hours, they would be fired, what was the initial response and the discussion that you all had amongst yourselves and with the union?

BUTTERWORTH: The overwhelming majority felt that we had committed to the strike and to each other and win or lose, we were in it together. Frankly, there wasn’t much talk about returning until after the fact. We felt we had the numbers and if we held strong we could be victorious. We were, of course, very much disappointed in Reagan’s decision to take such an over-the-top action, especially since he had pledged his support to us prior to his being elected. Some, however, decided to return to work. (We refer to those that returned as “Sprinters.")

INSIDER: If there is one thing current NATCA members should learn and always remember from PATCO and the 1981 strike, what should it be?

BUTTERWORTH: Being a union member means so much more than paying dues, wearing NATCA t-shirts, and attending an occasional meeting. It requires a commitment to your peers, to your profession, and to yourself that goes much deeper than the NATCA colors. There has never been a successful union that has not both won and lost many a battle, and likewise, there has never been a successful union that has not been able to stay united throughout the hardships and defeats. A battle lost does not define the character of any union; it is defined by the courage, commitment and loyalty of its membership. It’s really easy to be a union member during good times; you become a union Brother/Sister when you fight like hell during the tough times.

INSIDER: NATCA has developed a very powerful legislative activism program, built on the strength of its PAC and many years of taking our message directly to Capitol Hill and educating members of Congress and their staffs, whom we have established relationships. How do you think things would have been different, if at all, for PATCO if they had focused more resources to building their legislative power?

BUTTERWORTH: It is my opinion that PATCO did not hold legislative influence as a high enough priority.  We simply did not realize its importance. NATCA learned a valuable lesson from PATCO in this arena and has been able to establish valuable relationships. I don’t really know what difference it would have made in 1981; Reagan had a great deal of power, and I’m not sure he could have been diverted from his decision to take PATCO down. 

INSIDER: In a time without computers, cell phones, and all the technology we have today, how was PATCO able to build such a strong grassroots foundation with its members?

BUTTERWORTH: In a few words: motivation of the membership. The individual member wanted change and they were willing to participate on a personal level to obtain that change. Our meetings were very heavily attended, our facility representatives were constantly being asked about the organization and our next plan of action, and the members made it a point to be involved. PATCO leadership never had to seek out the membership to provide them with information; they were always there and ready to be informed and to participate. NATCA experienced a similar situation during the White Book period. When the membership is properly motivated, communication is not a difficult task!