The day unions lost their muscle

Striking air traffic controllers and sympathizers demonstrate outside of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, New York, August 1981. AP Photo/Pickoff

Robert Poli has died. Though he lived in relative obscurity in his later years, he changed the face of labor in America 33 years ago by badly miscalculating President Ronald Reagan.

Poli was the leader of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union in the United States. On Aug. 3, 1981, the controllers walked off the job in violation of federal law, forcing major airports to reduce traffic by 50 percent and making a mess of the nation’s air transportation system.

He never thought Ronald Reagan would fire them all. But he did. Reagan gave the strikers 48 hours to return to work.

The move helped turn public sentiment away from unions and emboldened the nation’s employers to take a harder line when labor used one of the few tactics it had to get better pay and working conditions.

Two days after Reagan’s threat, 12,000 controllers were fired. And labor learned an important lesson: There were 12,000 people more than willing to cross the picket lines and take their jobs.