WASHINGTON – The 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike permanently changed U.S. labor relations and opened the door to the bitter, ideological polarization now rife in U.S. politics, a historian of the era says.

Georgetown University professor Joseph McCartin, author of Ronald Reagan, The Air Traffic Controllers And The Strike That Changed America, explained Reagan made strikebreaking and permanent replacement of workers acceptable.  It was legal but tacitly forbidden before.  After PATCO, firms become emboldened to smash workers and to strongly shove their agenda through Congress.

The first to grasp that were the airlines, who used the strike as an excuse to bust unions while adjusting schedules to increase their revenues.  Other businesses quickly followed Reagan’s “permanent replacement” example and have done so ever since.

Labor, he added, deprived of the strike as a viable weapon – there were only five major strikes last year, federal records show – had to turn increasingly to politics to defend itself.

Not only that, but the tacit political consensus that produced rising postwar productivity and the idea that it should be shared with workers, thus producing the middle class, was shattered, too.  And labor issues became a big part of the subsequent political-ideological conflict that has raged in the U.S., McCartin said.

McCartin was joined by three others in discussing the strike: Ken Moffett, then director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service – who thought he had worked out a settlement of the PATCO-Reagan conflict – and two former PATCO members, Jim Morin of Long Island and Elliot Simons of Baltimore.

McCartin compared the strike’s impact to only a few other labor-management conflicts, notably the 1893 Pullman strike and the Auto Workers’ successful sitdowns in Flint, Mich., in 1937 for recognition and bargaining.  But while the memory of those specific conflicts faded, even if their impact did not, PATCO’s memory stays.

One example: Wisconsin Right-Wing GOP Gov. Scott Walker, just before he unveiled his legislation to strip 200,000 state and local workers of their collective bargaining rights, told his staff in February that just as PATCO defined the Reagan administration, the anti-union bill would define his.  He made that comparison explicit.

So did Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., in a recent speech on foreign policy.

Ironically, McCartin said, PATCO “was a strike that did not have to happen.”

Reagan’s administration actually bargained with PATCO over wages, benefits, and working conditions, a major concession then – and now – to federal employee unions.  Another key issue was controllers’ long hours in a “highly stressful” job.  

Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis offered a settlement that would have given the PATCO members raises more than inflation at a time when other workers, federal and private, were losing to inflation, McCartin said.

“A second myth of PATCO was that Reagan set out to force the strike and undermine organized labor.  The research didn’t show that either.  Reagan never challenged the right of the controllers to bargain or even the justice of some of their demands – only their right to strike,” he added.

But once the newly elected, more militant PATCO president, Robert Poli, called the strike on Aug. 3, 1981 – without even telling the AFL-CIO Executive Council, then meeting in Chicago – the Reagan administration unilaterally decided to fire the controllers.  That scared other workers, too.

“To see highly skilled workers like these banned” from getting their jobs back “and permanently replaced changed things in this country,” McCartin said.   “Private employers applauded and followed” Regan’s example “time after time.”  And the strike and its aftermath has set the tone for 30 years, he contended.

“The attack on collective action and the ability to strike has been devastating.  Workers had no choice but to turn to politics.  And the strike was a game-changer in politics, too.  After 1981, Regan and his followers willingly donned the mantle of union-busters.  And he made union-busting a litmus test for conservatives, such as the Walkers and the Christies,” he explained.

The PATCO strike also showed the need for labor solidarity, McCartin added.  He interviewed AFL-CIO council members or top unionists and found Poli had not rounded up any support, and that the strike was opposed by the Air Line Pilots, the Machinists and other transportation unions.  Since PATCO, McCartin noted, successful strikes have occurred only with widespread labor solidarity, marshaling community support – as the Mine Workers did in the 1989 Pittston strike – or both.

Others agreed. Poli’s predecessor, john Layton, whom Poli ousted the year before, spoke up from the audience to say Poli asked him to campaign for the new pact, but never sent him out on the road.  Simons said he told Baltimore media of all the union’s high points – including safety – but was floored by a question about whether public opinion would decide the issue.  Turning against the union, it did, he said.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.