In the first year of his presidency, Reagan pursued an anti-labor agenda that has severely diminished the power and prevalence of labor unions. In August 1981, nearly 13,000 workers affiliated with the Professional Air Traffic Controls Organization (PATCO) went on strike to demand better wages, improved working conditions, and a shorter workweek.
Reagan declared the strike illegal under the 1947 Taft-Hawley Act, a law that severely limits the ability of unions to strike, boycott, and picket. Reagan declared that any worker who did not return to work within 48 hours would be fired.
He fulfilled his promise: two days after the strike began, Reagan fired and replaced 11,359 air-traffic controllers. Subsequently, major employers followed Reagan’s cue; rather than negotiating with their striking employees, they began replacing them instead. This pattern severely limited unions’ ability to advocate for their workers’ rights.