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Domestic Policy: The Air-Traffic Controller's Strike

striking air-traffic controllers

What issues did President Reagan have to consider when he made his decision to fire the striking air-traffic controllers? Do you think he made the right decision? Explain why or why not.

A president can clearly point to the commander in chief clause of the Constitution as a basis for his or her authority to deploy troops. However, many other actions that presidents take consist of a combination of powers derived from various constitutional clauses and an interpretation and application of these powers to particular situations. Actions taken in domestic policy are often a mix of powers.

The president is charged with the general responsibility to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The Constitution notes that “the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” Of course, the legislature is given specific powers of its own, such as the power to create laws and appropriate money. However, the Framers were vague on how domestic policy would be administered by the president.

Early in President Reagan’s administration, the nation’s air-traffic controllers went on strike, seeking higher salaries and fewer working hours. The controllers were employees of the federal government and their strike violated federal law, which prohibited federal workers from striking. Although the controllers’ union and several other unions had called similar strikes under previous presidents, no action had been taken against them. With the controllers on strike, the nation’s air travel was briefly crippled and millions of Americans were adversely affected. President Reagan announced that the striking controllers must return to their jobs within 48 hours or they would be fired. When most of the workers did not return to work, he kept his promise and fired more than eleven thousand air-traffic controllers, replacing them with military controllers, supervisors, and nonstriking workers. President Reagan banned the striking workers from being rehired. The Justice Department pursued fines against the union. Within months, the union was decertified and was effectively broken.

President Reagan’s action in firing the striking workers was controversial. The strike and subsequent firing of these workers resulted in cutting roughly half the scheduled commercial flights on the first day of the strike, and the airline industry lost substantial revenue. Firing the workers went against the precedents of the four previous presidents, who did not fire government workers in similar situations.The Federal Aviation Administration faced the need to immediately hire and train new controllers. Commercial flights recovered quickly, however. The air-traffic control system continued to function. Most Americans supported President Reagan’s actions. Internationally, the Soviets paid close attention to this incident and were struck by President Reagan’s resolve and decisiveness.

Some critics claimed that the firing seemed to contradict President Reagan’s campaign promises to the air-traffic controllers’ union, the only union to have supported his election campaign. His decision to fire the striking workers showed that President Reagan did not intend his view of limited government to mean that he favored a weakened presidency.

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