Drew Lewis, a corporate executive who served as transportation secretary during the 1981 air traffic controllers strike, a showdown he sought to avert through negotiation and in which he ultimately backed President Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire the striking workers, died Feb. 10 at a nursing home in Prescott, Arizona. He was 84.
The cause was complications from dementia and pneumonia, said his son Andy Lewis.
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Lewis came to Washington in 1981, at the start of the Reagan administration, with a reputation for wizardry in the art of the corporate turnaround. After leaving the Reagan Cabinet two years later, he became chairman and chief executive of what was then Warner Amex Cable Communications, one of the largest cable companies in the United States and a predecessor to Time Warner.
In three years with the company, he was credited with converting $150 million in losses into gains between $20 million and $30 million. He retired in 1996 as chairman and chief executive of Union Pacific after a decade with the railroad company.
Few jobs were more demanding, however, than the task of leading the Transportation Department through the air traffic controllers strike, a defining moment in the Reagan presidency and one of the most significant events in modern labor history.
He had been lured into federal service in part through his GOP connections. In his home state of Pennsylvania, he chaired the presidential campaigns of Gerald R. Ford in 1976 and Reagan in 1980 and became, in the description of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “among the two or three most powerful Republicans in Pennsylvania and one of the most powerful in the Northeast.”
Even before Reagan and Lewis took office, there had been rumblings of discontent and threats of a strike among members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). Lewis played a critical role in negotiations with Robert E. Poli, the union’s leader, whose members sought higher pay, shorter hours and better working conditions.
By the summer of 1981, the government and PATCO appeared to have reached an agreement in which controllers would have received an 11.4 percent increase in compensation, among other measures. The agreement was overwhelmingly rejected by union members, who found the concessions insufficient.
On Aug. 3, 1981, at least 12,000 of 17,000 U.S. air traffic controllers defied federal law and went on strike, a move that resulted in massive flight cancellations and delays across the country. Reagan announced that controllers who did not report to work within 48 hours would be fired. Many union members doubted that the president, who once led the Screen Actors Guild, would follow through.
After the 48-hour window closed, Lewis announced that the striking workers had been relieved of their duty and would not be rehired “as long as the Reagan administration is in office.”
They were replaced by military controllers and new hires, who kept air traffic moving without major disruption and without catastrophe. Reagan’s assertion of authority angered many liberals and labor supporters but endeared him to conservatives. Poli ultimately resigned his post.
Shortly before the strike, Lewis told The Washington Post that he felt he had “a responsibility to try to keep those airplanes in the air and try to not have a strike,” as well as an “obligation to the public in terms of not having an exorbitant wage settlement here that upsets every other wage settlement in government.”
When he left office, he reflected on the workers who had been fired and remarked that “we would have liked to have figured out some way to bring some of those people back.”
“I would like to think there was a better solution than the one we had, but I don’t have a better solution,” he told The Post. “I’ve worried about that for two years, because I get letters from people who say they’ve lost their house and their wife left them because they don’t have a job, and I’m not insensitive.”
Outside the events of the strike, Lewis was credited with helping to secure funding for the development of new air-traffic control technology and shepherding through Congress a 5-cent-per-gallon increase in gasoline taxes for improvements on highways, bridges and transit systems.
By the time he left Washington, The Post reported, he was “generally regarded here as the most able domestic Cabinet officer in the administration.”
Andrew Lindsay Lewis Jr. was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 3, 1931. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1953 from Haverford College in Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1955.
Lewis worked for Henkels and McCoy, a construction company in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, and was credited with rescuing several struggling firms before staring a business consulting group in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, in the 1970s. Also during that decade, he was a trustee in the bankruptcy of the Reading Railroad.
He became involved in politics through a friend, Pennsylvania Republican Richard S. Schweiker, managing Schweiker’s successful U.S. House and U.S. Senate campaigns in the 1960s. (Schweiker later served with Lewis in the Reagan administration as health and human services secretary.) In 1974, Lewis ran for Pennsylvania governor, losing to Democrat Milton J. Shapp.
During his tenure at Union Pacific, Lewis reported to his board of directors that he had an alcoholism problem and underwent treatment. He was arrested for drunken driving in 1995 and again in 2002.
He was a longtime resident of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, and for years operated what his son described as a gentleman’s farm. Survivors include his wife of 65 years, the former Marilyn Stoughton, of Lansdale, Pennsylvania; three children, Karen Carrier of Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania, Rusty Lewis of Philadelphia and Andy Lewis of Haverford, Pennsylvania; 14 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. His son Andrew L. Lewis III died in infancy.
In 1986, Lewis appeared at commencement exercises at his alma mater, Haverford, a school with Quaker origins where he was to be awarded an honorary doctorate. After learning that a significant portion of the faculty had opposed awarding him the prize because of his actions toward the air traffic controllers union, he declined the honor out of respect, he said, for the Quaker tradition of arriving at decisions as a group.
During his speech, he defended his role in the strike but said that “when you’re brought up in a Quaker background, you adhere to consensus.”