August 3 In Labor History: Jolly Grandpa Ronald Reagan Crushes Air Traffic Controllers Union Like Ants
On August 3, 1981, the nation's air traffic controllers went on strike in the greatest disaster in the history of American organized labor. Ronald Reagan's busting of the union led to a new period of corporate anti-union attacks and served as a precursor to the current Republican-led campaign against unions across the country.
The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association was founded in 1968 and quickly proved to be an important and active trade union of public sector employees. This was a period of rapid growth for public sector unions, reaching nearly 40 percent of public workers by 1980. The air traffic controllers were mostly working-class people who had acquired their skill in the military. For them, the union meant a middle-class lifestyle without attending college. These people were living the idealized American Dream, the one that encourages us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. But of course, the employers don't really want people to follow through on that mythology en masse, for doing so means understanding the need to wrest power from the bosses.
PATCO had a militant membership. Many of the air traffic controllers were military veterans. Most of the rank-and-file controllers were enlisted men and most of the administrators were officers. This meant that the FAA wanted to run the air towers like the military. To say the least, the everyday air traffic controller did not accept that. They were civilians now. Also, this was an incredibly stressful job. It's not like today, where sophisticated computing systems help the controllers make sure everyone is safe. These were overworked and scared workers, trying to keep people alive while they are yelled at by FAA administrators. So, they formed a union.
But with striking by federal employees illegal, their options for workplace actions were limited. In order to show their power, in 1969, PATCO workers engaged in a workplace action that was just enforcing safety rules that maintained large distances between aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration had ignored these rules for years. By doing so, the workers slowed the airlines way down, infuriating the airlines but also ensuring safety for all. In 1970, PATCO engaged in a sick out to protest understaffing and stress, leading the government to hire more air traffic controllers and increase modernization efforts. But with public sector strikes illegal, the air traffic controllers had limited options to achieve their aims. Moreover, PATCO had a very bad relationship with Jimmy Carter. So in 1980, the union endorsed Ronald Reagan for the presidency. Reagan, a former union leader who had led the Screen Actors Guild on a strike in 1952, said favorable things about their union despite his conservatism.
Supporting Reagan didn't exactly pay off for PATCO.
On August 3, 1981, PATCO went on strike for better pay, improved working conditions, and a 32-hour work week. The union wanted an across the board $10,000 pay raise and fully funded retirement after 20 years. It was an audacious set of demands that would have cost taxpayers $770 million. The government came back with significantly less, but still a shorter work week and a 10 percent pay increase for a few workers. Ninety-five percent of the membership rejected the deal and authorized a strike.
But it was illegal for government workers to go out on strike. Congress passed a law in 1955 that made strikes by government workers punishable by a year in prison, which the Supreme Court upheld in 1971. Ronald Reagan, flexing his muscles as a new president who represented an invigorated right-wing movement, decided to repay PATCO for its support in 1980 by destroying the union. Reagan used the Taft-Hartley Act to force the workers back on the job, but the large majority stayed out. The strike aimed to crush the nation's flight capacity, but through automation and quickly sending in scabs, flights fell only by about 50 percent.
When the union refused to go back to work, Reagan fired the 11,345 strikers. He did not have to do that. The law did not require the firing of striking public sector workers and no one expected Reagan to do this. He also banned them from government employment for life. Finally, Bill Clinton rescinded that ban in 1993, but only about 800 returned to government employment. That October, the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified the union. This was probably the greatest disaster in the history of American labor.
Regardless of the wisdom of the air traffic controllers going on strike, Reagan's busting of their union had widespread implications. It invigorated the latent anti-union sentiment in the country. According to Alan Greenspan, Reagan is to be lauded for his actions precisely because it emboldened private employers to treat their own workers as expendable and take a harsher stance against organized labor. And it's not like everyday Americans came out in support of the PATCO cause: In the weeks after the strike began, 45,000 people applied to become air traffic controllers.
Organized labor certainly saw the threat to its future and held what they called Solidarity Day on September 19 that drew about 250,000 people, mostly organized union members, to Washington — but the AFL-CIO was furious with PATCO for engaging in such a risky strike without even consulting the other airline unions. Even such a large rally was pretty easy for Reagan to ignore, particularly while he was receiving a lot of support from his base and the more conservative parts of the country. And what does such a march do anyway? Not much. The AFL-CIO sent out letters to its unions banning them from engaging in any secondary strikes or more radical actions. From a legal perspective that makes a lot of sense, but from a strategy perspective it was pretty disastrous because it showed the labor federation was completely unable to mobilize effectively in response to this threat. Moreover, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland explicitly told Reagan he wouldn't do anything to damage him and said he opposed "anything that would represent punishing, injuring or inconveniencing the public at large for the sins or transgression of the Reagan administration."
Great leadership Lane.
From the perspective of air safety and cost effectiveness, busting the union could have destroyed Reagan. Air traffic safety was severely compromised; even Reagan's own supporters worried that plane crashes would result from his actions. It took 10 years for the government to train enough workers to restaff the air towers at 1981 levels. The cost of this was billions more than the workers demanded in 1981.
Yet for Reagan, as for conservatives so often, fiscal discipline only mattered if it served his political aims. Reagan's larger goal of crushing American organized labor took precedence and was worth the risk to him. The cost of the strike didn't matter so much as Americans forget about these things quickly. That he was willing to put the lives of American flyers at risk in order to score political points shows his moral monstrosity. But it paid off big time for Reagan. Even at labor's peak, a large percentage of the American population hated the sheer idea of labor unions, and rarely has union bashing cost American politicians at the polls. Reagan wrapped himself in his labor union past for the duration of the action, lamenting that he had to take such actions against labor and that he only did so because the strike was illegal and threatened public safety.
The airplanes did not crash (though they certainly could have) and Reagan gained his desired reputation for toughness. Both American labor and the Soviets took note of his stand. Public sector unions never again took such an aggressive bargaining stance toward the federal government.
Reagan's actions also ushered in a new era of union busting that crushed unions in the private sector through the 1980s, laying the groundwork for the weak labor movement today. Unions had no strategy to fight this. They were scared, and the era of strikes that dominated the 1970s fell off a cliff after 1981. Labor lost its militancy. And we find ourselves in the era of income inequality that we find ourselves today.
WHY IT MATTERS TODAY
This should be pretty clear to everyone. While Reagan firing the controllers is not the only reason why organized labor has declined, it is a huge one. The Republican war on workers began in 1981 and remains in full effect today. Every term, the Supreme Court cuts into labor rights a little bit more. Republicans in the statehouses seek to strip public workers of their rights and find ways to not implement voter-approved raises in the minimum wage. This was a catastrophic moment and we need to fight to recover the rights that we had as workers less than a half-century ago.
Erik Loomis, A History of America in Ten Strikes
Wonkette is ad-free and supported ONLY by YOU. Like this post? Feel free to help us pay the writer!