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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.

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Although McCartin keeps his eye narrowly on his subject, one can understand the years between 1962 and 1981 as a two-decade contest to see whether the New Deal system would expand or contract as these trajectories competed—a struggle that would play out most dramatically in the 1970s. Between the lines of McCartin’s history we can therefore discern another collision course—an even bigger one, perhaps, than McCartin is willing to suggest—not just about PATCO, but about historical possibilities more broadly. 

Kennedy’s 1962 executive order allowing federal workers to organize was a politically brilliant maneuver—simultaneously repaying labor for working on his campaign while preventing a more substantive bill that would have elevated federal labor relations to the level of private workers. “The Executive Order pulled the rug from under the government unions just as they were about to pluck the golden apple,” McCartin quotes an expert in the sixties. “It gave them what they said they wanted (recognition), while it deprived them of the windfall they hoped would come with it.” PATCO’s early efforts therefore built on a new right to organize that was weaker than the union might have wished for. They also, McCartin reveals, depended upon the equally shaky celebrity attorney and pilot F. Lee Bailey, who was able to add intrigue and fame to the organizing effort in the 1960s before becoming an obstacle to advancing the union cause. 

By the end of the 1960s, the organization was resolving its identity crisis over whether it would be a union or a professional organization. “PATCO’s very survival was in doubt,” McCartin writes. “Its near destruction changed the organization.” After a failed series of sickouts, the organization was transformed: “A group that did not officially refer to itself as a union, whose members were not certain they wanted a union and whose best known public face had been that of a trial lawyer, had undertaken the sickouts of 1969 and 1970. The desperate effort to salvage the organization after the failed national sickout finally forced PATCO to resolve its ambivalence about its identity as a labor organization.” Salvaged by actions from the Nixon administration, PATCO reached its mature form by 1972, moving from the brink of collapse to, by mid decade, one of the most militant and tightly organized unions in the federal government.

For a strike and organization that did so much to define the contemporary era, there is something primeval about the PATCO story. The union’s history, especially given that it emerged from the culture of the hip sixties and indulgent seventies, seems primordial, like a sturgeon rising from the deep waters of working-class history, its DNA connected to the most ancient aspects of labor’s genetic code. In short, this was an oddly antiquarian group to be drawing the line against the new order. Demographically and politically, it was not exactly the Memphis sanitation workers or a wing of the Rainbow Coalition, but an organization of conservative, skilled white men; men with their eyes on corner lots in the suburbs where they could raise their young families. 

These were guys old Sam Gompers would have understood. As McCartin puts it, the controllers “didn’t want solidarity, they didn’t want justice, they didn’t want rights, they wanted the chance to become white-collar professionals. They were striking now because they felt they had to protect their profession from the degradation of diminished real earning and increased stress.” Indeed, controllers were never even quite clear whether they wanted to be a professional organization or a union until their fight in the seventies pushed them clearly into the union camp. Even the controllers’ sartorial trademark, white shirt and tie, was a source of identity confusion, McCartin suggests. It evoked status but simultaneously, because it was required dress, smacked of a uniform and therefore a lack of status. 

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