On July 8, 1966, the International Association of Machinists voted to go on strike against five major airlines. It started the following day, with 35,000 members going on strike, slowing down the airline industry for months and changing the trajectory of the government’s relations with the airlines.
The mid 1960s was a heady period for the airlines. The money started pouring in. To be fair to them, the early 60s was tough. The jet age was here and the airlines had to invest a lot of money in this technology. That significantly depressed profits for several years as the investments got up and running. But once they did, the airlines made money hand over fist. Meanwhile, the mechanics, affiliated with the International Association of Machinists, did not get to enjoy their fair share of these new profits. In fact, their pay was flat out not very good, well below the standard for the profession in many industries. The IAM did not protest this too much when the profits weren’t there–this was hardly some syndicalist organization after all. The union wanted companies to make profits. But once the profits came, by God they wanted their share too. And profits had doubled or more for the five major airlines in 1964 alone.
The last union contract had brought the industry standard into a universal contract with five major carriers–United, Northwest, National, TWA, and Eastern. This also meant that the workers had to negotiate against the a large section of the industry. Moreover, the federal mediation agencies weren’t particularly sympathetic to the workers either. The Johnson administration created an emergency board to try and work something out but the pay raises were paltry and for the workers this was unacceptable.
Now, the IAM was not some rabble-rousing organization. They patiently worked at the table until there was no other option. But by the summer of 1966, the workers had been without a contract for six months. The airlines weren’t budging after a year at the table. Moreover, the Johnson administration, increasingly concerned about inflation with the Vietnam War taking up so much of the nation’s economic power, put pressure on the airlines to hold the raises at 3.2 percent per year. Meanwhile, profits rose even more for the airlines. Finally, they had enough. So 35,000 Machinists decided to use their ultimate power–withholding their labor.
Shutting the airlines down is a serious tactic. Not only do the airlines include passenger flights, but the mail and an enormous amount of cargo flights. Now, the IAM didn’t shut down all the airlines. But flights were significantly slowed, inconveniencing a lot of people. About 60 percent of American flights were cancelled over the next six weeks. The airlines still didn’t have any interest in seriously bargaining. They were seeking to hold the line against pay raises of any meaning.
This strike immediately got national attention. Congress considered a bill based on the Taft-Hartley Act to force workers back on the job for a 180-day cooling off period to buy time for a settlement. The airlines completely played up the so-called irresponsibility of the workers. They claimed that the mechanics didn’t care about the economy, that the strike would undermine national security and the ability to fight the war in Vietnam, and would hurt American foreign policy by undermining trade. IAM president Roy Siemiller noted that these arguments were absurd and if the airlines cared so much about national security, they would bargain in good faith with the workers. Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, a decent guy overall, tried to walk a fine line here, wanting to respect the workers but also threatening federal action if this went on too long.
By the end of July, the Johnson administration got involved. LBJ was decent on labor issues, though he didn’t use a lot of political capital on them. He moved the wage rates up a bit, to 4.5% a year over three years. This is a bit higher than inflation but it wasn’t the kind of serious wage gain the IAM sought. But the Machinists took the offer to a vote. Workers totally rejected it, by a vote of 17,251 to 6,587. That’s not a happy workforce right there, especially given presidential intervention.
Finally, with continued mediation from the Johnson administration, the Machinists and airlines settled with a 6 percent pay raise on August 19, after 43 days on strike. The workers won major fringe benefits as well–retirement, health care, the rest of the postwar liberal package. Overall, about 150,000 people had their flights cancelled during the strike and the IAM got back a bit of what they were owed from the increasingly greedy and wealthy airlines.
There was another important precedent here. The nation weathered a longish strike against multiple airlines. The end of the world did not come. So future administrations took a more relaxed attitude toward airline strikes, at least until Reagan. That included the Nixon and Ford administrations. Hardly a close friend of organized labor, Nixon’s Secretary of Labor George Shultz (everyone forgets this about him!) strongly opposed the creation of Presidential Emergency Board for airline strikes as LBJ had done. He figured that the strikes would be resolved like most strikes and so there was little reason to engage in such extreme measures. It’s worth remembering that this was pre-deregulation. The airlines were not thought of as a regular business by most political figures. They were seen as so critical to the economy and national security as to need special protection. The reasonable settlement of the 1966 strike helped to undermine that and paved the way toward the 1978 deregulation. To say the least, the impact of the deregulation under Carter was tremendously complicated. It’s worth noting here that both labor and the airlines were generally opposed to deregulation. Neither wanted the risk. Probably the Air Line Pilots Association were the exception to this, as pilots are a bunch of hard right jerks who only care about themselves. Most certainly, deregulation laid the groundwork for the 1981 busting of the air traffic controllers union by Reagan, but no union ever brought it down on themselves like PATCO.
This post borrowed from David Walsh’ “Strikes in the Airline Industry” from The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History.
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