The air-traffic controllers strike
In August 1981, Ronald Reagan took an uncompromising stand against striking air-traffic controllers who threatened to shut down the nation's airlines. The striking workers complained of growing demands and dangerous levels of stress on the job. Their issues centered on wages, retirement benefits and hours.
The president announced the striking workers were in violation of the law, and he fired them, with little apparent remorse. Organized labor was furious while the public had a more mixed reaction. Even those within his own administration had their doubts about the move.
Former Reagan Chief of Staff James Baker:
"What I most remember was the concern that some of us on the staff had about whether it was going to turn out all right or not. I think we all felt it was the right thing to do. But there was some concern on the part of some of us that maybe there would be some political, serious political, downside to it. As it turned out, there was a serious political upside to it because the American people ended up supporting the idea of a president who was willing to stand up to that kind of behavior. It was a good example, I think, of the political sagacity of President Reagan."
Former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese:
"As much as anything in the first year (the way Reagan handled the air-traffic controllers strike) convinced people in other capitals around the world, including the Soviet leaders, that they had a person of real substance that they were dealing with here. ... He didn't look back (on firing the workers) because he was convinced it was the only thing he could do under the law. He didn't worry unnecessarily or bemoan what occurred. He looked on to the next challenge and what was the next thing to do."