Chuck Sheehan, PATCO Leader
A trade union leader who never gave up
October 9, 1947 – March 9, 2001

 by Kathleen O’Nan

It is a sad irony, that as the 20th anniversary of the PATCO strike nears, one of its leaders, Chuck Sheehan, has died. Chuck became known throughout the Los Angeles trade union movement in 1981 as a fight back leader of the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Union) strike. This strike has become infamous because of the union-busting tactics used by the U.S. government and especially the attack on it by President Reagan.

Chuck led the PATCO local here in resisting to the end all attempts to quash this union, but Reagan succeeded in firing every single striker nationwide. Chuck kept alive the fight against this unjust action, as well as the reminder to the rest of us that the same type of treatment could happen to any of our unions unless we are prepared with a strong and militant approach against the employers and corporations. There is still a lawsuit against the FAA to recover damages to PATCO strikers and their families pending in the Miami courts, which he supported.

Chuck was also very active in supporting other union struggles. Not many strikes went by in the last 20 years that did not see Chuck on the picket line. He was a trade union leader who always said yes to helping out union sisters and brothers in their fights. Whether it was a strike by airline mechanics, flight attendants or pilots; a struggle against sweatshop owners; the janitors’ fight to unionize; or county employees trying to get a decent contract, he was there. He was a trade union leader who never gave up.

Chuck was an extraordinary man in many other ways as well. He was known for his sense of humor, his kindness and his intense interest in the people he knew. He always had a warm hug and smile for old friends, and never forgot to ask about their families, their concerns and their lives, even if he hadn’t seen them in years. Whenever he heard of someone he knew in trouble, his first question was “What can I do to help?” He was also “just plain fun”. 

He was also known for his passionate involvement with his family, his extended family of friends, and his community. His devotion to his wife and companion Nancy and their daughter Sarah was widely known.  At his funeral mass and memorial last Friday, an exceptionally broad range of people was present to remember him and celebrate his life. They included people from his church, his neighborhood, the PTA’s of his daughter’s schools, members of the youth groups he led, other members of the “PATCO Class of ‘81”, and, of course, his very large family.

Chuck will be missed by many. I’m glad I knew him.

March 19, 2001


From the March 14 Los Angeles Times

Charles Sheehan; Local Leader of Fired Air Traffic Controllers
By MYRNA OLIVER, Times Staff Writer

Charles F. "Chuck" Sheehan, Southern California labor leader who headed the local air traffic controllers union when President Ronald Reagan ousted them because of a strike against the federal government in 1981, has died at the age of 53.

Sheehan died Friday after collapsing during an outing with friends and family in Monrovia.

"I still miss [the job] immensely," Sheehan told The Times in 1991 as he headed for a 10-year reunion of the fired strikers in Washington. "It grows in your blood. Every day you don't know what's going to happen. It builds and it builds to a point where you need that challenge. It's almost like a drug high. We'd get to work in the morning and we'd fight each other to get the busier [control tower] positions in the morning rush."

Sheehan went on to earn a degree in labor studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills and, after volunteering as an unpaid union worker for several years, got a job as area representative for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in 1988.

An ardent unionist, he worked to coordinate job actions against the now-defunct Eastern Airlines, Greyhound Bus Co. and the National Football League.

Sheehan first trained as an air traffic controller during Navy service in the Vietnam War. He worked as a Federal Aviation Administration air controller from 1970 until he was fired in 1981, directing planes in and out of airports in Rochester, N.Y., Chicago and Indianapolis as well as Los Angeles. He also helped prepare a training manual for other controllers.

As head of the Los Angeles local, Sheehan urged his colleagues to join others in the 11,400-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization who went on strike in August 1981, complaining of outdated computer equipment and insufficient training. Taking a hard line against illegal strikes by federal workers--even unionists who had supported him in his run for president--Reagan fired all the controllers and decertified their union rather than negotiate. Four months later he issued an executive order barring strikers from reemployment in FAA facilities.

Despite his heart problems, which he had long attributed to the stress of his controller job at Los Angeles International Airport, Sheehan remained active in public service. In recent years, he served on the board of the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic and was a member of the Monrovia-Arcadia-Duarte Town Council, which represents unincorporated areas surrounding those cities.

Sheehan is survived by his wife, Nancy: a daughter, Sarah; and a brother, Joseph of Buffalo, N.Y. A memorial Mass is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Friday at Annunciation Church in Arcadia.