The historic records of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) are available for research at Georgia State University Library’s Southern Labor Archives, one year before the 30th anniversary of the strike that broke the union. President Ronald Reagan’s confrontation with PATCO in 1981 marked a turning point in U.S. labor relations. The records at the Southern Labor Archives are the largest PATCO collection available to researchers and they provide insight into one of the most tumultuous and significant events in recent labor-management history.
The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, formed in 1968 to represent the interests of federally employed air traffic controllers, survived as a union for only 14 years. Dissatisfied with their Federal Aviation Administration contract, PATCO members went on strike on August 3, 1981, though as federal employees it was illegal for them to do so. Subsequently, over 11,000 controllers were dismissed and the union was decertified.
The PATCO strike and firings led to a loss of bargaining power for U. S. labor unions. In their aftermath, corporations began to view termination of striking workers as a viable option to negotiation. Fearful of management response, unions have seldom called strikes since the early 1980s. The impact of the PATCO firings on workers, unions, corporations, management, and the federal government is a rich area of study for scholars from many fields including history, sociology, economics, communications, labor, law, business, and political science.
According to Georgetown University historian Joseph McCartin, the PATCO records are uniquely revealing. “I have never seen a richer collection of union records in the field of U. S. labor history,” he stated. “Often the union records donated to archival repositories have been culled and scrubbed by individuals who do not understand the potential importance of records they judge to be insignificant…[the PATCO records give] researchers an opportunity to get a unique view of the internal workings of a union, including divisions among its leaders and intense debates over strategy.”
The PATCO records, created and used by officers and staff at their national headquarters, detail the daily operations of the union and the administration of its regional and local offices. Highlights of the collection include records related to the 1981 strike; files from the offices of the President, Vice-Presidents, and Director; and publications. The collection consists of over 200 feet of material housed in over 450 boxes.
Questions about the collection should be directed to Traci Drummond, archivist, Southern Labor Archives, at 404.413.2880 or firstname.lastname@example.org.