In Showdown with Air Traffic Controllers, the Public Sided with Reagan

Feb 22, 2011

The bitter fight over union rights in Wisconsin calls to mind a labor battle that helped define the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Thirty years ago in August, Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers after they staged a strike against the federal government.

Reagan's reaction to the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike was widely portrayed as harsh -- not only did Reagan fire the controllers, he banned the government from ever rehiring them. The "ban for life" was rescinded by the Clinton administration, but not until 12 years after the strike.

But the public solidly supported Reagan's action. Fully 59% of Americans approved of the way he was handling the issue, according to a Gallup poll conducted a few days after he fired the controllers. A Harris survey at about the same time showed that by 51% to 40%, more said they were in sympathy with the Reagan administration than with the air traffic controllers. Several months later, in January 1982, 50% said that Reagan's treatment of the air traffic controllers was "about right."

Read the full report In Showdown with Air Traffic Controllers, the Public Sided with Reagan on the Pew Research Center's Web site.

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