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PATCO Strike: Not So Happy 25th Anniversary

As I headed to the airport for my vacation, I ran across an article noting the 25th anniversary of what CWA organizer Steve Early calls “the biggest, most dramatic act of union-busting in 20th-century America” — the PATCO strike. And although I don’t have the facts on the demographics of Firedoglake readers, I would bet that many, if not most, were not yet born (or at least not yet reading the newspaper) when the PATCO strike gripped the nation.

So gather ’round children…

On Aug. 3, 1981, 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization walked off their jobs. PATCO one of the few American labor unions to have supported Ronald Reagan in the recent election, was asking for higher wages, a shorter work week, and better retirement benefits. While the Federal Aviation Administration characterized the union as a bunch of greedy bastards asking for more pay and shorter hours, the fact was that American air traffic controllers were among theonly air traffic controllers in the world required to work a 40 hour week. That, combined with mandatory overtime and the extreme stress of the job, meant that almost 90% of controllers left the job before retirement age.

A 1995 report by Rebecca Pels for the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia noted that:

While the press and hearings in Congress focused almost exclusively on the demand for a pay raise, certain commentators recognized that the air controllers’ walkout was not solely, or even primarily, an economic issue. Newsweek noted that "controllers concede that their chief complaint is not money but hours, working conditions, and a lack of recognition for the pressures they face." Time wrote that the 32-hour week was "a reduction that the controllers seem to want more than the pay increases. . . . most PATCO members see this issue as the key to lowering their on-the- job anxieties and enhancing safety." One striker later explained that the $10,000 demand "was always negotiable; anyone who believed it would come to pass was dreaming. Of primary importance to most was a reduced work week and an achievable retirement."

Strikes by federal employees were illegal, but PATCO figured that the nation couldn’t survive for long without its air traffic controllers. Joseph A. McCartin, who teaches history at Georgetown University in Washington and is writing a book on the PATCO strike, described what happened next and its significance for the American labor movement:

President Ronald Reagan responded with an ultimatum: If the controllers did not return to work within 48 hours, Reagan promised to fire them. When more than 11,000 strikers decided to test Reagan’s resolve, they lost their jobs and their union. In the years after 1981, a number of prominent private sector employers followed Reagan’s lead and permanently replaced their own strikers. The stiffened resistance to collective bargaining that became evident in the 1980s accelerated organized labor’s decline. They would be wise to ponder an even more deeply rooted problem facing labor today–one highlighted by this week’s painful anniversary. Since 1981, the strike has nearly disappeared from labor’s arsenal. Unless unions can recover that weapon, they may not reverse their slumping membership figures.

During labor’s heyday, American workers struck frequently and effectively. Between 1950 and 1980, the U.S. witnessed an average of more than 300 major work stoppages (each involving at least 1,000 workers) per year. But between 1982 and 2000 the annual average of stoppages plummeted to 46. Nor has it bottomed out yet. In this century, the average is under 30, less than one-tenth the 1970s rate. The drop in strikes has been much more precipitous than that of union membership and far out of proportion to declines in unionization. Between 1952 and 2002, the share of U.S. workers who paid union dues fell from 35 to 13 percent. But the number of workers who struck in 2002 was a mere one-sixtieth of the 1952 figure. And this suggests that unions may not recoup membership losses unless they can also recover the capacity to strike and the leverage that comes with it.

While admitting that the situation is bad, AFL-CIO researcher Gordon Pavy doesn’t think it’s quite as bad as McMartin suggests:

The BLS statistics he and others so often point to illustrate a decline in strikes only count the number of strikes involving 1,000 workers or more. BLS hasn’t changed their threshold in over 45 years. But technological innovation and productivity gains over the years have drastically reduced the number of workplaces with 1,000 workers. A better measure of strike activity is the FMCS. FMCS reports for June show 60 work stoppages ongoing and 27 that ended in June.

Nevertheless, the labor movement hasn’t been the same since the PATCO strike, nor have its adversaries. In 1983 the20.1 percent of American workers belonged to unions. By 2005, however, that number had fallen to 12.5 percent of U.S. workers

For employers, however, it was a bonanza. By firing the air traffic controllers, Ronald Reagan gave legitimacy to formerly little-used union busting tactics like replacing strikers with "permanent replacements." Employers can’t fire workers for striking, but since 1938, they’ve had the right to "permanently replace them. (The difference is only evident if you’re an attorney). Nevertheless, McMartin calculates that in the 1950s and 1960s, there was only one documented use of permanent replacements for about every 80 major work stoppages. Yet in the first 10 years after 1981, there was one documented use of permanent replacements for every seven work stoppages.

And not only did the growth of permanent replacements disrupt traditional labor relations in the United States, but it also violated international law according to labor market economist Charles Whalen:

Through the International Labor Organization (ILO), governments around the world have declared that the right to strike is part of the freedom of association. In short, it is a human right. The ILO has also found that the U.S. permanent-replacement doctrine undermines that right.

What were the lessons of the strike? For labor, according to Early, the "new" lesson is the same as the "old" lesson: An injury to one is an injury to all.

No labor movement can long survive, much less thrive, without a strong culture of mutual aid and protection. When labor organizations practice solidarity some of the time, rather than all of the time, they do a grave disservice to their own members – and the millions of unorganized workers whose pay and benefits have also suffered since Reagan’s death blow to PATCO.

The PATCO strike drew little support from national unions — the AFL-CIO was reluctant to inconvenience millions of Americans, the Machinists, who do most of the labor at airports had no-strike agreements with the airlines, and other unions resented PATCO’s support of Reagan’s candidicy and figured they go what they deserved. But as Early says: 

No labor movement can long survive, much less thrive, without a strong culture of mutual aid and protection. When labor organizations practice solidarity some of the time, rather than all of the time, they do a grave disservice to their own members – and the millions of unorganized workers whose pay and benefits have also suffered since Reagan’s death blow to PATCO.

In These Times writer David Moberg agrees:

For labor, the lesson is that unions are strongest when they take pains to win broad popular support for their cause and when they stick together. If all the airline unions – the pilots, the flight attendants, the machinists – had united behind PATCO, and if PATCO had better demonstrated how its demands would protect public safety, the controllers might have held off Reagan’s attack.

Moberg notes, however, that management may have learned the wrong lessons from the strike:

While hard-line resistance can crush their employees’ unions, problems don’t disappear simply by suppressing employees’ voice at work. What’s more, workers who are respected and rewarded perform better. In many ways, a good manager can benefit from collective bargaining, using it to solve problems early and develop a motivated workforce. This was lost on Reagan, and it is lost on President Bush. In the current administration, officials have become more hostile toward federal employee unions. Bush stripped many workers – especially in the new Department of Homeland Security – of their rights to organize.

And as Moberg points out, the more things change, the more they stay the same:

Within six years after Reagan demolished PATCO, controllers had organized themselves into a new union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. These highly skilled, well-paid workers still wanted to have a say about their work. And for years, the new union and the aviation agency were able to resolve many problems constructively through bargaining. In negotiations for a new contract earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration demanded $2 billion in concessions from controllers. The union offered cuts worth $1.4 billion, but the FAA never compromised. It declared negotiations at an impasse and claimed the right to impose its own terms on workers – cutting pay for current employees, but even more drastically for newly hired controllers. The union warned that the conditions of the new contract were so bad that within the next few years, thousands of controllers will likely choose to retire, causing a severe crisis in providing skilled workers for an agency that is already understaffed.

As we look back on the past 25 years, it seems hard to remember a time when predictions of the labor movement’s death weren’t common. But the same ingredients that failed then — strategic planning and solidarity — are being revitalized today. Perhaps by the time Firedoglake readers are old geezers like me, labor’s problems will have receded into the past just like the PATCO strike 25 years ago. Because, as Moberg points out, one thing that will never change is that "Workers want – and deserve – a voice on the job."

Postscript: Adding insult to injury, Washington National Airport was later changed to Reagan National Airport, although some of us still refuse to call it by its official name.

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Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab