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Good Choices from Unions Past



The Washington Post, October 24, 1980:

The executive board of the militant organization that represents the nation’s aerial traffic cops has endorsed Ronald Reagan for the presidency. Robert D. Poli, head of the 14,500-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, met with Reagan yesterday in Florida.

PATCO’s leaders charge that President Carter has mismanaged the federal civil service, and has ignored what the union says are serious safety problems that jeopardize the country’s air traffic control system.

PATCO is the exclusive bargaining agent for all 17,000 controllers. It is considered one of the most aggressive of all government unions. Federal Aviation Administration brass have charged that PATCO is preparing for a strike next year during the big Easter vacation travel period. FAA cited a 110-page memo — which it calls a “blueprint” on how to run a strike — that PATCO sent regional officials earlier this year. Details of the memo were outlined here Oct. 5. Strikes against the government are illegal. PATCO members in the past have been involved in work-to-rule actions and sick-outs that slowed air traffic.

The union says controllers are over-worked and underpaid, and that the administration has let safety equipment deteriorate to dangerous levels. Poli charged that Carter had “consistently denigrated federal employes” and supported plans to cut back on retirement benefits for U.S. workers. Reagan says he opposes the White House plan to eliminate one of the two cost-of-living raises that federal and military retirees get. Poli said PATCO’s nin-member board, which endorsed Reagan unanimously, has been assured that the California governor would provide the best leadership for federal workers, and improve the state of the air traffic control system.”

The best leadership. Good choice guys. Good choice.

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  • Sev

    I’ve always considered this a turning point in the history of US unions, with plenty of blame to go around. Obviously Reagan- saw his opportunity and took it. PATCO leadership of course, which probably reflected largely white, male, technically trained membership. But also AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland in particular. Of course they were pissed with PATCO for going its own way on the election, and decided to let them reap what they’d sown. But this was a huge strategic error. Unions are about solidarity. In my fantasy speech, I imagine Kirkland giving PATCO a major dressing down, and telling them they would have to pay a price for an illegal strike, but then turning to tell Reagan that if he thought he was going to destroy the union, he would have a general strike on his hands. I actually thought something along these lines might have worked, and saved the union movement from a lot of what followed.

    • Honestly, PATCO hadn’t earned support from Kirkland or anyone else. The AFL-CIO and other unions told them not to do this, that they were going to get killed. But they let militancy get in the way of the slightest bit of good sense. That’s why even more militant union leaders like Wimpy Winpisinger really kept their distance.

      • Joseph Slater

        This. The idea that any significant number of employees were going to go out on an illegal general strike, and likely get fired for their troubles, in support of PATCO was never realistic.

  • jim, some guy in iowa


    PATCO endorsing Reagan is something I’ve managed to miss all these years- which is embarrassing to admit but doesn’t hold a candle to what the union leadership did there. my god

    • Yeah, me too. If I ever knew that, I’d completely forgotten it.
      Still, though, I can’t imagine what aspect of Reagan’s record as California governor led the union to believe he would do anything other than what he did.

      • Reagan was pretty conciliatory to public sector unions as governor.

        • Joseph Slater

          Signed the bill authorizing collective bargaining for state employees.

  • Bootsie

    PATCO endorsing Reagan about fits everything I know about the competency of the leadership there.

    • The thing about PATCO leadership though is that it was very much rank and file militancy. They kicked out their previous, more reasonable leader.

  • Morse Code for J

    The FAA saw PATCO coming a long way off. There was so much excess capacity in the system from before airline deregulation that the airlines had no problem reducing flights to the point where the remaining workforce could handle them. The military sent hundreds of its controllers as direct hires, and the Academy at Oklahoma City ran three shifts a day for years. Traffic was handled inefficiently, and I don’t doubt that a lot of serious safety issues were swept under the rug until the FAA began to approach the number of required FPLs at its facilities. But it worked.

    I can’t imagine NATCA ever voting to strike. Of course, we have the luxury of binding arbitration in the event of impasse, which PATCO did not.

  • Dr. Acula

    Didn’t the Teamsters also endorse Reagan?

    • John Revolta

      Hell, the Teamsters endorsed NIXON.

      • PATCO also endorsed Nixon in 72

        • John Revolta

          McCarthy really didn’t ring a lot of people’s chimes, did he?

      • Woodrowfan

        Didn’t they get a pardon or such for Hoffa?

        • Bruce Vail

          Yes, Nixon pardoned Hoffa.

          It was the infamous Chick Colson who brokered the deal, if I remember correctly.

  • John Revolta

    OT: 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to LGBT employees. I hope Hobby Lobby, Chik-fil-A et.al. enjoy a big shit sandwich

  • N__B

    I marched for PATCO in 1981. Somewhere I still have my “IUE SUPPORTS PATCO” button. Had I known that the union supported that scumbag in the election…I still would have marched. I was an idealist when I was 16.

  • No Longer Middle Aged Man

    My view at the time and still now is that Reagan had to fire them. He was newly elected, his predecessor had been widely perceived as weak, allegedy encouraging Soviet invasion of Afghanistan among other things. It wasn’t so much the disruption of travel, it was that PATCO held a figurative gun to the head of the President of the United States. Firing them, getting the Marines out of Beirut (too late unfortunately since they never should have been there in the first place), and the START arms reduction are about the only things I think he did right in his entire presidency. Maybe also firing Al Haig.

  • one of the blue

    There seems to have been a pervasive sense at the top levels of the federal bureaucracy in the 1970’s that public employee unions needed to be be taken down a peg. The thriller Yellow Dog Contract details a much more fraught scheme to do so than what Reagan ultimately pulled off with PATCO. One thing people do not appreciate about Reagan is he spent nearly 30 years as a union activist and leader, and as such not only knew labor’s weaknesses from the inside, but also how to talk to union members. He knew just how to hurt workers and their unions at minimal cost to himself.

  • Bruce Vail

    Here is a little-known tidbit about PATCO:

    PATCO was a stand-alone affiliate of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (AFL-CIO). MEBA’s legendary leader of the 1970s and 1980s, Jesse Calhoon, urged Poli to avoid a strike, but the advice fell on deaf ears.

    PATCO was a MEBA affiliate because MEBA had a strategy of acquiring affiliates whenever possible in areas outside MEBA’s historic base in 15-20 port cities on the coasts. The thinking here was that MEBA needed to be able influence Congress more broadly that the historic base would allow. PATCO was seen as ideal for this purpose because it had many local units spread across the country and could always get the attention of local congress members because of its involvement in FAA and related airport development issue.

  • John F

    About 25 years ago one of my co-workers was an ex-PATCO employee, this was in an area where Reagan was VERY popular… but man oh man did he hate Ronnie Raygun with the intensity of a hundred gamma ray bursts.

    He also hated the old PATCO leadership just slightly less. He’d been working two full time jobs (16 hours a day) for a decade by that point.

    His take on it, among other things, was that the strike leaders were too stupid to have been real, it was a set up to break the union with the strike leaders in on it— a tad paranoid- but he did say that he had had every intention of crossing the picket line on day 1, he’d voted against the leadership, he’d voted against the strike. Some of his coworkers begged him not to cross, at least not on day 1, he agreed, stayed home and got fired with everyone else (not everyone else- one of his co-workers, one who had “begged” him not to cross the line- crossed the line)

    • Bruce Vail

      There were a lot of controllers who crossed the picket line. One of the reasons for the tepid level of support from some of the other unions was the perception that PATCO membership was not even united behind the strike.

  • josiah

    Just going to re-rec Collision Course which I know Loomis has recommended a lot in the past, too.

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