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This Day in Labor History: December 28, 1973

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Does space have a labor history? The answer is yes. On December 28, 1973, the crew of Skylab went on a one-day strike to protest their working conditions and the pressure NASA placed on them to catch up on their experiments after one of them had gotten sick. This event might not have any enormous implications for the history of the American labor movement, but is a moment indicative of the broader worker protests of the 1970s that had the potential to reinvigorate the American labor movement.

NASA launched Skylab in 1973 to great fanfare but it had a lot of problems from the start, with the spaceship damaged upon takeoff, requiring two missions just to make it habitable. It was not intended for long-term usage, so the third mission was extremely important as it was the last one scheduled before Skylab was ended as a experimental station. Because so much time had been lost in the first two missions, all the scientists involved wanted to make sure their personal experiments were conducted by the third crew. So NASA planned for an 84-day mission that would include 16-hour days every single day. Among that work would include four spacewalks to inspect the conditions of the spaceship, four days of observing the Comet Kohoutek as it passed near the sun, conducting medical experiments, and 80 different projects to photograph specific places on the Earth.

That third crew consisted of three astronauts: Mission Commander Gerry Carr, Science Pilot Ed Gibson and Pilot William Pogue. None of these three men had been in space before. They knew they would need some time to get used to the conditions on Skylab. Even before the mission, Carr had suggested they would take some time to adjust. But there was no time in the schedule for adjustment. And almost immediately problems developed. Pogue got sick. The astronauts saw no reason to report this to Mission Control. It was pretty common after all for astronauts. But then they found out that Mission Control was listening in to their private conversations and knew about it anyway. This infuriated the astronauts. Moreover, NASA began sending extremely specific instructions about minute-by-minute tasks for the astronauts to accomplish. Remember, these men were professionals at a very highly specialized job working in extreme conditions. These were astronauts after all. You can imagine how this kind of micromanagement would infuriate them. They tried to keep up for two weeks but found themselves falling behind, as there was no room in the schedule for the natural delays that happen at work. Moreover, they were exhausted with these 16-hour days. When they fell behind, NASA began demanding less sleep and working through their meal breaks. So the astronauts began to complain to Mission Control. But NASA’s response was that they were whining. Carr told NASA, “We would never work 16-hours a day for 84 straight days on the ground, and we should not be expected to do it here in space.”

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NASA’s treatment of the astronauts began gaining attention of other astronauts. The commander of the previous Skylab mission told NASA to give the workers a break, saying the work schedule was impossible and far more difficult than his mission. But NASA ignored him too. Carr and his crew demanded a day off. NASA refused. So Carr simply shut off the radio and the astronauts took the day off they wanted. Effectively, they went on a 1-day strike against their working conditions. They relaxed, took pictures of the Earth, and just hung out. NASA went ballistic. But there was nothing they could do at the time. After all, the only people who really controlled what happened at Skylab was the astronauts themselves.

After the 1-day strike, NASA finally came to terms with the astronauts. The next day, December 29, NASA agreed to quit micromanaging the astronauts, allowed them to take their full meal breaks, and just send them a list of tasks for the day and let them figure out how to get it done. You know, treat them like adults. And it worked. All the projects got done before the mission ended. The last 6 weeks went without a hitch.

NASA did not forgive the astronauts for their rebellion. None of the three ever went into space again.

So what? Why does this tiny labor action matter, other than being a curiosity because of the unique conditions of work and location? I think it’s a nice window into the 1970s. This was a decade where workers around the country were making new demands of their employers and of their unions. This was the great period of internal union rebellions. It was the period of Miners for Democracy overthrowing the corrupt, murderous regime of Tony Boyle of the United Mine Workers. It was a year after Lordstown, when an interracial group of young workers at a GM plant in Youngstown went on strike against the company and the United Auto Workers international they felt was not really representing their interests and were too close to the company. It was the era of the massive explosion of public sector unionism, including the militant, democratic unionism of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, which overthrew its own leadership to elect a new slate that would more directly challenge the government and endorsed Ronald Reagan because it hated Jimmy Carter so much. It was the era of OSHA and environmentalism and attempts to create safer workplaces and forge alliances between unions and greens.

It was also an era that failed to achieve lasting reforms. I think this is for three reasons. First, the union rebellion movements were not particularly competent at managing the unions they overtook, leading to disappointment and disillusionment such as with Miners for Democracy and very poor political decisions that did not correctly read the union’s interests as with PATCO. Second, capital mobility totally undercut this labor militancy. It’s hard to make new demands of employers when those employers are just going to move the jobs to Mexico, as was happening throughout the 1970s. Third, the rise of conservatism and the growth of the powerful corporate lobby with the open intent of crushing the American labor movement overwhelmed these unions at the same time that capital mobility undermined their base.

But the 1970s is arguably the most fascinating decade in the history of the labor movement one with great relevance for the present as we are forced to rethink labor activism in the aftermath of conservatism’s near complete victory over organized labor. So maybe small events like a 1-day strike of astronauts against overbearing management is something that can inspire us in some way.

This is the 166th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • michaelrbn

    Skylab was launched in 1973, not 1972.

    • Hogan

      And it was William Pogue, not Hogue.

      • Pseudonym

        If we’re fixing minor mistakes in the post (since I think Erik talked about aggregating these into a book at some point), I think the O in PATCO is Organization, not Association (same with the linked post).

  • Srsly Dad Y

    Yes, Erik, you have the wrong year, although it has been widely misreported as 1972 online, at Kos and elsewhere. The NYT and the NASA wiki say the launch was in Nov 1973.

    • Linnaeus

      Although to clarify, Skylab went up in May 1973 before it was crewed. November 1973 was when the mission discussed in this post was launched.

  • Derelict

    Tragically, nothing has changed in NASA’s management techniques or philosophy. The tendency to extreme tunnel-vision makes NASA managers over-ride everyone and anything that might interfere with what’s seen as the desired end.

    Thus did Challenger meet its end. And thus have numerous otherwise promising research initiatives been killed off. A recent example was a project that, through no fault of the researchers, fell about three months behind schedule. Rather than re-adjust either the schedule or the research milestones, the Agency’s manager decided to simply skip the most important parts of the research (gathering the baseline data). Of course, jumping from “concept” to “just build the vehicle and let’s see” produced pretty much the results you’d expect.

    • ijkcomputer

      Broadly, I think the Skylab strike actually did have pretty lasting impact on how NASA managed astronauts (notwithstanding its effects on the careers of the strikers.) There’s certainly been a long-run trend at NASA, from the first suborbital flights until today, to giving astronauts more control over their time and how they do their jobs, and toward giving them down time and thinking about their mental health. Shuttle and ISS were both run much more like after-strike-Skylab-4 than before-strike-Skylab-4.

      NASA did have a lot of incentives to avoid strikes, after all, once they found out that was a possibility. Outsourcing the astronaut corps to Mexico probably wasn’t really on the table, and bringing in scabs mid-mission is pretty tough.

  • toberdog

    PATCO endorsed Reagan? And he repaid the union by breaking it.

    • What’s the line from Animal House?

      “You fucked up. You trusted us.”

  • MikeJake

    Mission control knew there was only one man who could handle a space mutiny.

  • Ken

    “Science Pilot” has got to be one of the coolest job titles ever.

  • Gwen

    Apollo 7 also featured something of a work-stoppage, and the result was that none of the astronauts on that mission ever flew again.

    http://news.discovery.com/space/history-of-space/near-mutiny-on-apollo-7-cold-stempers-marred-mission-131023.htm

    • Brett

      There’s definitely a pattern there. They don’t forgive rebellions, although they’ll occasionally tolerate some breaking of the rules (like when an astronaut snuck a deli sandwich aboard a mission by hiding it in his spacesuit).

  • Bruce Vail

    typo alert: It’s Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), not Association.

    1970s also notable for the Nixon divide and conquer strategy against the unions. He famously cozied up to the Teamsters, pardoning Jimmy Hoffa while acting to prevent Hoffa’s return to union power. He was largely successful in courting the Building Trades (see Alaska pipeline, etc.) and the maritime unions (see Merchant Marine Act of 1970).

  • Bruce Vail

    President Ford would ape Nixon’s tactics in dealing with labor unions, and even Reagan would follow them to a large degree.

    • Brett

      Ford had a stronger position to do it. By the time he assumed the Presidency, the mid-decade downturn had hammered grassroots labor activism hard.

  • Brett

    I will not be even slightly shocked if something similar happens on the first crewed mission to Mars. NASA still likes micro-managing its crewed missions, and it will be even more frustrating on a crewed Mars mission because they’ll be dealing with a 20-minute delay and a whole ton of folks back home trying to get every possible experiment into the mission (as with Skylab).

    What’s extra fascinating about the 1970s labor unrest and movements was that it was an international thing as well. It was happening in Great Britain, in France, and so forth as well. My guess would be some combination of a generation that had basically never known anything but booming economic conditions, rising inflation, and a decade earlier of increasing activism paying off.

    • Mike G

      NASA micromanage everything. You’ve heard the joke series about the number of people it takes to change a lightbulb? I had a relative on the ground control team for a Space Shuttle mission years ago, and changing a burned-out lightbulb on a scientific experiment on board turned into a Kafka-esque circus involving at least a dozen engineers exacerbated by back-seat quarterbacking from a half-dozen managers.

  • royko

    Very cool story. Thanks.

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