President Clinton Invites Air Traffic Controllers Back to Work

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NBC Nightly News
Katie Couric
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Video News Report
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
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President Bill Clinton invites air traffic controllers dismissed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan back to work. This video includes an interview with two major figures during the strike: Ken Moffitt, the former federal mediator, and Ed Meese, the former White House counselor to President Reagan.



"President Clinton Invites Air Traffic Controllers Back to Work." Katie Couric, correspondent. NBC Nightly News. NBCUniversal Media. 13 Aug. 1993. NBC Learn. Web. 23 January 2015.


Couric, K. (Reporter). (1993, August 13). President Clinton Invites Air Traffic Controllers Back to Work. [Television series episode]. NBC Nightly News. Retrieved from


"President Clinton Invites Air Traffic Controllers Back to Work" NBC Nightly News, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 08/13/1993. Accessed Fri Jan 23 2015 from NBC Learn:


President Clinton Invites Air Traffic Controllers Back to Work

KATIE COURIC, anchoring:

The Clinton administration is slowly chipping away at Reagan Revolution, and the latest is the President’s invitation to air traffic controllers to return to work.

Twelve years ago this month, more than eleven thousand members of PATCO, the air traffic controller’s union, went on strike, and President Reagan responded.

President RONALD REAGAN: They are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated. End of statement.

COURIC: The man who was mediating the dispute back in 1981 as director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Board was Ken Moffitt; he’s in our Washington newsroom this morning. Also joining us, the senior member of Mr. Reagan’s White House staff at the time, he was councilor to the President, Edwin Messe the Third, and he too is in Washington. Good morning, gentlemen.


COURIC: Mr. Moffitt, let me begin with you. I know when the air traffic controllers were fired back in 1981, you were extremely angry. Why?

MOFFITT: Well I couldn’t call any more meetings, and almost all negotiations in the labor relations’ area you can always call another meeting after a dispute has reached a point of impasse. In this instance I was not allowed to call any more meetings.

COURIC: Mr. Meese, other public employees had gone on strike before, for example the postal workers did in 1970, and yet they weren’t fired. Why do you think then President Reagan was appropriate in his actions twelve years ago?

MESSE: Well, what other Presidents may have done, or not done, is up to them. But President Reagan, even though it was difficult for him because he himself had been a union president, and of course the air traffic controllers were one of the few unions who supported him in 1980, but he felt that the primary responsibility of the President was to uphold the law, and that’s why he gave them a chance to go back to work, and when they refused and were in continuing in violation of the law, he took the only action that he legally could.

COURIC: While Governor of California, I know that Mr. Reagan delivered a similar ultimatum to some state employees, and they responded. Do you think that back then he was actually surprised that the air traffic controllers did not heed his warnings and return to work?

MESSE: Well I think he did, I think he expected them to obey the law, and regretfully but when they didn’t, he took the only action he felt he could under the constitution.

COURIC: Mr. Moffitt the Reagan action back in 1981 is often seen as an indication of how the unions had really lost their influence and power. Do you think that in 1981 this move by the President gave various individuals the green light in busting unions or really not respecting them?

MOFFITT: Well I think that there’s no question that firing the controllers had a chilling effect on all negotiations for the next decade, and there’s no question that it seemed as though the replacement of strikers became fair game as far as all management was concerned. It seemed that way all around the country.

COURIC: What about, Mr. Moffitt, this about face by the Clinton administration. Is this something you welcome? Do you think it is a largely symbolic move, are you pleased about it?

MOFFITT: I’m very pleased about it. I think it’s a long time coming. I think it should have happened before, twelve years is an awful long time when you consider the fact that an awful lot of people have been pardoned previously for less offences.

COURIC: Do you think that the role of unions as a result of this move by the Clinton administration will change? That they will get more respect, if you will?

MOFFITT: Well I don’t think its going to matter that much. I think what we have to have is a change as far as the labor law is concerned.

COURIC: How so?

MOFFITT: Well I think the whole area, as far as possibly striker replacement, and possibly revamping the national labor relations’ board, to put more teeth into the law.

COURIC: You’re pleased, but do you think, Mr. Moffitt, that this is largely symbolic? Apparently there are not that many jobs available for those who lost their jobs twelve years ago – they’ve lost all seniority. Do you think it’s really that important of a move?

MOFFITT: I think its very important, because you never know what’s going to happen down the road, and I understand that there’s possibly three thousand controllers that may apply and you never know what’s going to happen, maybe things are going to open up and all these people may ultimately be able to go back to work.

COURIC: Mr. Meese, reportedly one of the reasons for this move by the Clinton administration is that it is trying to stave off an all-out war against NAFTA. Do you think this will be an effective ploy?

MESSE: Well I don’t see how this really affects NAFTA at all. What it does is puts a stark contrast I think between a strong president, Ronald Reagan upholding the law, and a weak president, President Clinton giving in to another special interest group, and trying to placate big union bosses. And I think its mistake, because it would tend to show disrespect or the law.

COURIC: Alright, Ed Messe and Ken Moffit, thank you very much.

MOFFITT: My pleasure.