Robert E. Poli, an air traffic controller who rose to the top of his union and led a 1981 strike that turned into a momentous defeat for organized labor, died Sept. 15 at his home in Meridian, Idaho. He was 78.
Poli’s death from kidney and respiratory failure was confirmed by his son, Rob.
As president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, Poli led more than 11,000 members off the job on Aug. 3, 1981. Federal workers are barred from striking, but Poli liked to rally his members by declaring that “the only illegal strike is an unsuccessful one.”
By virtually every measure, the PATCO strike was unsuccessful.
Mounted after unsuccessful negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration and years of dissatisfaction with excessive stress and insufficient pay, Poli and his fellow union members made a number of demands criticized by many as extravagant, including an immediate $10,000 raise and a 32-hour, four-day workweek.
Poli later said he had been encouraged by assurances of sympathy for the controllers from presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, whom the union, breaking ranks with other labor groups, endorsed. But one year later, as president, Reagan vowed to fire controllers who violated their employment agreements by going out on strike.
When the government started sending out dismissal notices and several local union leaders were jailed, Poli reacted with both determination and jaunty humor.
“The s.o.b.'s have us surrounded,” he told his aides. “We can attack in any direction.”
Months after the walkout began, PATCO filed for bankruptcy protection. Reagan replaced the workers he had fired with non-union supervisors, military air controllers and swiftly trained novices, in addition to the 3,000 controllers who remained. On Dec. 31, 1981, Poli, who had been a top union official for nine years, quit the organization in hopes that his departure would hasten a settlement.
“The biggest regret I have is not the strike,” he said at a 1982 gathering in Memphis. “The biggest regret I have is [that] the men and women I knew so well … will be branded as malcontents, money grabbers and people who conducted the most ridiculous strike in history.”
On a larger scale, the debacle altered the labor landscape for many years to come.
“Americans witnessed the dramatic destruction of a union on the largest public stage imaginable,” wrote Joseph A. McCartin in his 2011 history, “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America.”
“They saw technologically sophisticated, seemingly indispensable workers permanently replaced by their employer. And they watched public opinion uphold this action while the AFL-CIO stood by helpless to prevent the most widely watched strikebreaking act to that point in world history.”
For Reagan, a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, the strike was widely seen as a test of his toughness.
It led to “a huge infusion of presidential credibility,” wrote Washington Post columnist Meg Greenfield, “even among some people who deplored the act itself.”
Reagan eventually allowed strikers to seek work elsewhere in the federal government. However, many faced prolonged unemployment, with government budget cuts and a weak economy limiting jobs.
Born in Pittsburgh on Feb. 27, 1936, Robert Edmund Poli grew up in a blue-collar home. His father carved religious statuary and worked at a dairy.
After graduating from high school, Poli joined the Air Force. For 13 years after leaving the service, he was an air traffic controller at airports in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
“I remember once when I was handling an Air Canada flight coming over Pittsburgh and he had radio failure,” he told the Washington Post in 1981. “I still remember he was at 37,000 feet and I had to move 20 planes out of the way.… It’s when you get off your shift and start to think about it and you realize you might have killed 300 people with a wrong move — that’s when you start drinking.”
Poli became PATCO’s vice president in 1972. He was chosen as president in 1980 over an incumbent, John Leyden, who was seen by many members as unaggressive.
After leaving the union, Poli was involved with a Florida real estate development owned by General Electric.
He briefly became a labor negotiator for GE, his son Rob said, “until Jack Welch [then the company’s CEO] realized he had one of the most infamous labor leaders negotiating on his behalf.”
Poli was general manager of a BMW dealership before retiring to Henderson, Nev., and, in later years, Idaho.
In addition to his son Rob, his survivors include his wife, Marijess; daughter, Laura Cholet; and four grandchildren. Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.