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This Day in Labor History: August 3, 1981

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On August 3, 1981, the nation’s air traffic controllers went on strike in arguably 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 public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and 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% 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 pretty militant membership and strong leadership. But with striking by federal employees illegal, their options for workplace actions were limited. In 1969, PATCO workers implemented safety rules that maintained large distances between aircraft, which effectively proved to be a slowdown. 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 its 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 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% pay increase for a few workers. 95% 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 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 cripple the nation’s flight capacity, but through automation and quickly sending in scabs, flights were reduced only by about 50%. 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 even such a large rally was pretty easy for Reagan to ignore, particularly with him 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 completely unable to mobilize effectively in response to this threat. Moreover, AFL-CIO 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 been 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 the level of 1981. 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 American 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. Reagan also showed his respect for the law and public safety later in his presidency in the nation of Nicaragua.

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.

There’s plenty of places one can mark where American labor began its decline: Taft-Hartley. The expulsion of the communists from the unions. The Border Industrialization Project. But right at the top of this depressing list is the PATCO strike. Even today, labor has not recovered from this and still doesn’t have an effective strategy for dealing with employers’ uncompromising union-busting tactics.

The definitive account of the PATCO strike is Joseph McCartin’s recent book. I have only read excerpts but it comes highly recommended.

Today, the air traffic controllers are again unionized in the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, but obviously the militancy is not the same as in 1981.

This is the 36th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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