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How Ronald Reagan Broke the Air Traffic Controllers Union--And Why That Fight Still Matters

The PATCO strike has become the pivotal event in almost everyone’s understanding of the massive realignment of class power in the United States in the last few decades.

This story is part of  Dissent magazine's special issue on Workers in the Age of Austerity. Look out for more in the coming week. For more great coverage from Dissent, check out their website. 

 Alan Greenspan described the 1981 destruction of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization as “perhaps most important” of all of Reagan’s domestic undertakings. The defeat of PATCO during the first summer of the Reagan administration “gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.” With employers’ “freedom to fire” renewed, entrepreneurial initiative could once again be unleashed. Reagan’s action thus inaugurated a miraculous era of “low unemployment and low inflation.” If we substitute Greenspan’s phrase “freedom to fire” with “break unions, strip them of the right to strike, redistribute wealth upward, and create massive economic insecurity,” then we have a story that is similarly satisfying to the Left. Indeed, the PATCO strike has become the pivotal event—both symbolically and substantively—in almost everyone’s understanding of the massive realignment of class power in the United States in the last few decades. 

The PATCO strike may be the watershed moment in the consolidation of the post-New Deal order, but it has also become a bloated political symbol. Fortunately, Joseph McCartin gracefully moves the union and its famous strike from myth to complex historical analysis in his new book Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, The Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America. McCartin’s assessment captures the very real importance of the strike coolly, without reading too much into it: “No strike in American history unfolded more visibly before the eyes of the American people or impressed itself more quickly and more deeply into the public consciousness of its time than the PATCO strike. No strike proved more costly to break. And no strike since the advent of the New Deal damaged the U.S. labor movement more.” As McCartin develops his story, he shuns the type of totalizing rhetoric we have come to expect whenever this union’s disastrous work stoppage against the federal government is invoked. The stark black and white drama of political lore is rendered in complex hues of gray, slowly building up a thick cloud of impending disaster. 

McCartin’s book will long stand as the most judicious, painstakingly researched, and thorough study of what is undeniably one of the most important events in labor history of the last four decades. But the book’s strength is also its weakness. The author may strip his subject of hyperbole, do a great job of conveying the everyday grind of controllers’ lives, and capture the impending standoff with the federal government, but he also tends to leave the story in isolation. How we, as a nation, get from this single labor conflict to the transformation in all of labor relations and the larger political economy that Greenspan celebrates remains foggy. PATCO was more than just another strike: it was the game changer of the second half of the twentieth century. Yet it appears here as a quarrel gone bad—what appears to be, culturally speaking, a nineteenth-century-style union accidentally ushering in the New Gilded Age.

The story begins vividly with a horrific midair collision over New York in 1960 that left 134 dead and large chunks of airliner strewn across Brooklyn. The disaster convinced air traffic controllers that something had to bedone about their antiquated equipment, growing overtime, and the steadily increasing numbers of flights as air travel became more popular. Here McCartin goes into extended detail about the work process, the individuals, and the issues at stake in these early organizational efforts. Shortly thereafter, two vectors appeared in 1962 that would eventually cross in the summer of 1981: one-time union president Ronald Reagan officially changed his party affiliation to Republican, and President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order allowing federal workers to organize. 

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