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Erik Loomis @ErikLoomis
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This Day in Labor History: August 3, 1981. The nation's air traffic controllers go on strike. Reagan fires him and the modern era of unionbusting begins. We have so much to learn from this, much of which you might not expect. Let's talk about that.
Air traffic controllers worked a stressful job. Hundreds of lives were in their hands at all times.
One controller in Newark noted “a rotten employer will create a union every time,” and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was a rotten employer, dominated by former military officers who saw the controllers as former enlisted men—as many were during the Vietnam War
Despite a growing air fleet, the FAA did not hire enough controllers. Workers were stressed and overwhelmed, waking up with nightmares about crashing planes. There were an average of 12 fatal crashes a year between 1962 and 1966, with 10 more in the first 8 months of 1967.
Congressman Guy Molinari said of watching conrollers, “I and watched him take care of an awful lot of traffic, and his knees were drumming constantly; and you could see the type of tension & pressure he’s operating can see the pressure cooker there.”
Moreover, controllers worked longer hours with less vacation and sick time than controllers in every other industrialized nation.
The FAA had ignored its own regulations manual for years. In August 1966, Chicago controllers decided to slow down air traffic by doing exactly what the FAA manual instructed and no more. They made sure that planes had landed and turned before allowing the next plane to land.
By following FAA rules to the tee, the controllers demonstrated their power, made flying safer, and massively backed up air traffic. Such slowdowns would become standard operating procedure for angry controllers over the next fifteen years.
Los Angeles controllers engaged in similar actions, forcing the FAA to grant them pay raises and providing the workers comfortable chairs
Building on this victory and with the assistance of famed attorney F. Lee Bailey, an amateur flyer himself who had gotten to know New York flight controllers, activists from around the country created the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) in 1968.
The new union soon showed expressed its power. Later that year, PATCO organized “Operation Air Safety,” a national slowdown that again slowed down air traffic by strictly following FAA rules. Delayed flyers deluged Congress with angry calls. It worked.
PATCO won automatic union dues deducted from paychecks and they convinced LBJ to sign a bill exempting controllers from restrictions on overtime pay. Controllers engaged in sickouts, with hundreds calling in sick to protest hostile supervisors.
The FAA fired a bunch of union leaders in 1970 after a sickout, but Nixon rehired them because he wanted union support in 72
Nixon also signed a bill allowing controllers to retire with full benefits after twenty years if they were over fifty years old, or twenty-five years for any workers. For controllers, the lesson was that their aggressive strikes against the government would cause it to cave.
These actions infuriated the government and irritated the American public. But with public sector strikes illegal, the air traffic controllers had limited options to achieve its aims. PATCO also developed an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the FAA
Supervisors bitterly opposed the union contract and tried to escape it at every opportunity. Workers had to carry copies of the contract with them to enforce it on the job.
They used their newfound power to file grievances on everything from parking and wearing jeans on the job to using a sick day to care for family members and speaking freely in the workplace without facing discipline.
As the 1970s went on, PATCO’s rank and file militancy grew and controllers’ patience with the government shrunk. PATCO won raises for members at the busiest airports in 1977. In doing so, it used the leverage it had over the nation’s travel to win its demands.
Threatening a strike around Thanksgiving 1977, PATCO president John Leyden told The Washington Post that the fact that Christmas was coming “has not escaped our board of directors,” threatening to shut down the airlines for the holidays.
PATCO endorsed Jimmy Carter for president in 1976, believing he would sign a bill allowing all federal workers to negotiate over pay. But with growing inflation and tight budgets, the Carter administration refused to negotiate in good faith.
Militants thought the leadership had sold out by signing a new contract that did not address their demands and the members only ratified it by a slim margin.
The union forced a work slowdown over the airlines refusing to grant free international flights to the controllers, but internal support for this tangential issue was low and a judge fined PATCO $100,000.
Carter now hit PATCO with blow after blow. First, the FAA downplayed a report showing the high rates of hypertension and stress among controllers, ignoring their needs for greater staffing and less intensive work.
Second, Carter ended the program that allowed early retirement for controllers. Third, after a 1978 crash blamed on pilot error, controllers lost legal immunity for crashes.
These failures infuriated PATCO militants and they took it out on their president, John Leyden. A movement called Fifth Column, made up of young and angry controllers, challenged Leyden, demanding an aggressive stance with the government and the FAA.
This led to Leyden approving the planning of a strike for 1981; even though government workers striking was illegal, teachers in St. Louis had recently won raises because nearly of nearly unanimous strike support
Leyden agreed to a strike if at least 80 percent of the membership favored it. Yet this could not stop the attacks on his leadership. In 1980, his vice-president, Bob Poli took on Leyden for PATCO president.
When he realized he had the lost the confidence of his fellow board members, Leyden resigned. With Poli’s election, the radicals ruled the union. This was a democratic union. But would union democracy lead to good choices? The answer was no. Militant democracy led to disaster.
And it is worth taking a minute here to talk about other parts of PATCO. First, it was largely a racist and sexist union. It was a union made up of angry white men. Black controllers felt the union did not represent them. Female controllers dealt with constant sexual harassment.
PATCO didn't care about other unions and it didn't care about the general public. It basically made enemies of everyone it possibly could, including potential allies in the AFL-CIO.
So this militant democratic union decided to show their enemy Jimmy Carter and endorse Ronald Reagan for president in 1980, one of a very few unions to do so. Whoops!
But it made some sense. First, most PATCO members were neither socially or racially liberal. They were cranky white guys. Second, Reagan was actually pretty good with public sector unions as governor of California, signing many contracts.
So they assumed that they would strike, Reagan would negotiate with them, and they would win more gains. That, uh, didn't work out.
In fact, Reagan's team offered a good deal to PATCO! A 5 percent raise, exemptions from federal caps on overtime pay, a 20 percent bonus for working nights, paid lunch breaks, and significant severance pay. This was far beyond what the U.S. government had ever offered a union.
Union leaders reluctantly agreed. But then the members overwhelming rejected the contract. The president of the Pittsburgh local called it, “a Band-Aid for a cancer.” So they struck after that very good offer. This is what militant democracy brought the union.
This is when the Reagan administration chose to crack down. PATCO believed they had the ultimate card to play--safe flying. But the FAA had prepared for this for years. They convinced the airlines to take some short term losses to tame these workers.
AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland was pretty bad, but he recognized what was about to happen. He urged PATCO to take the offer. The public, who just wanted to fly without stress, was basically demanding this union be destroyed. PATCO didn't care.
Reagan held a press conference where he gave the controllers forty-eight hours to return to work or face termination.
He said privately, “Dammit, the law is the law and the law says they cannot strike. Having struck, they have quite their jobs, and they will not be rehired.”
Reagan’s threats just made the strikers more determined. Said striker James Stakem, "When I was a marine in Vietnam. I was sure of what I was doing, I believed in being there. I wouldn't have listened to Ho Chi Minh then, and I won't listen to Ronald Reagan now."
Maybe PATCO could have won this strike if it had worked with the Machinists and the Pilots' union over the years. But it didn't care what had to say. Their strikes were hurting other union members. So those unions weren't going to help.
Many local militants tried to help PATCO but no support was coming from the AFL-CIO except tepid public statements. And given PATCO's actual history, it's hard to blame them. That union kind of sucked for everyone who wasn't a white male controller.
Reagan fired the 11,345 controllers who didn't return to work. He didn't have to. But he wanted to look tough to the nation and the world. And because it was such a high-paying job in a bad economy, 45,000 people applied to replace them.
Reagan banned the controllers from government employment for life. Clinton rescinded that ban in 1993, but most would never return to their jobs.
The strident actions of public sector workers that began with the postal workers in 1970 decisively concluded with the controllers’ firing. Between 1981 and 1982, teachers’ strikes fell 42 percent while state worker strikes in New York fell 90 percent between 1981 and 1988.
Government workers became public symbols of bloat for conservatives to attack, not workers that were seeking a better life.
This attitude has continued to the present, with Republicans attacking public sector unions when they take power in states such as Wisconsin and Iowa since 2010.
So some lessons: 1) Unions who hate on other workers and are only for white males are setting themselves to fail. 2) Militant union democracy can be great. Or it can be utterly disastrous. A democratic union can certainly use that democracy to demonize minorities, for instance.
3) Solidarity doesn't mean "what will you do for me?" It means "What can I do for you?" PATCO, by endorsing Reagan, showed they didn't understand that.
4) Any union that gets cozy with Republicans is asking for whatever they get. That very much includes the AFL-CIO with Trump. Yesterday, Trumka refused to say that the federation wouldn't endorse him in 2020. You are just digging your own grave. Yet many union members love Trump.
5) Reagan's unionbusting of PATCO was not the only starting point for the destruction of unions and the rise of the New Gilded Age. But it was certainly one of the most critical moments. We still live with this today. Who knows when it will end.
A lot of this material came from Chapter 9 of my new book A History of America in Ten Strikes, which focuses on PATCO. You can preorder it here.…
But if you really want the down and dirty on this union and this strike, you have to read Joseph McCartin's great book:…
Back tomorrow to talk about the Bracero Program
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