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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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McCartin never invokes much before 1960, but PATCO has strong connective tissue binding it to the old craft unions of the nineteenth century. Those unions survived because the workers already had power on the job by virtue of their skill—unlike many of the mass industrial unions that rose in the twentieth century, which looked to wider solidarities, the state, and the nature of mass production to bring them together. PATCO’s type of elite unionism, once derided as the “aristocracy of labor,” was designed, as the founders of the American Federation of Labor put it, “to protect the skilled trades of America from being reduced to beggary.” And PATCO members believed, like the AFL unions of yore, that their unique skills protected them on the job and in their struggles with the Federal Aviation Administration. 

The controllers also saw themselves as deeply American in many ways. Even though most individual members were Democrats, as an organization, they backed Nixon, falling readily into his “Silent Majority” constituency. They couldn’t stand Jimmy Carter—or his famed deregulator Alfred Kahn—who brought chaos and bad contracts to the control tower with the deregulation of air travel. In one of the most famous ironies of labor history, PATCO backed Reagan, who openly promised to help them, against Carter in the 1980 presidential race. 

These overtones of cultural and political conservatism were underscored by the controllers’ attitude of old-school masculinity and their “manly” bearing toward their profession, which seems to leap straight out of historians’ analyses of nineteenth-century skilled tradesmen. This was a job that drew its ranks from military veterans (many came home from Vietnam having learned something about resistance to authority, which played no small part in catalyzing their rank-and-file militancy) who, as it was often said, had the “balls” to make quick decisions. As the “quarterbacks” of the skies, the “matadors” of the runways, these guys also faced enormous stress, which found outlets in bravado, hazing of new workers, alcohol, status-seeking, and, eventually—and much more productively—in choosing to become a labor union rather than a professional association. 

The controllers fit this nineteenth-century union model except for one crucial dimension: their relationship with their employer, the state. Gompers’s limited “pure and simple” unionism was, to a large part, tactical: he believed the state played little more than a vicious role in American labor relations—that power came from the shop and the union. PATCO, however, was intrinsically connected to the state that Gompers feared. While public sector unions played catch-up to the gains of their private sector brothers and sisters in the sixties and seventies, they operated in a different historical moment—a nineteenthcentury union, in a New Deal framework, squaring off with a late-twentieth-century state in flux. They were the tail end of that moment when the state worked for non-elites, a moment when history was about to flip back to the bad old days. 

The whole PATCO package speaks to something outside of the world of post–New Deal labor relations: their manliness, cultural conservatism, defense of skill and craft, the longing for prestige, their leverage on the job, and their narrowly construed solidarities. Federal and state interference in strikes has a long and sordid history, and even the denouement of PATCO harkens back more to the Homestead or Pullman strikes than anything in the twentieth century that either the air traffic controllers or the nation might have expected. 

Almost all scholars who look at the seventies, this writer included, argue that by 1978 the smell of death was already in the air for the New Deal labor relations regime—at least for the private sector. PATCO, too, was again in trouble that awful year, but unlike everyone else, managed to turn it around. Just as the president of the United Auto Workers, Doug Fraser, named the “one-sided class war” being waged on American workers, PATCO launched plans for a national strike during its next contract negotiations. Frustrated by legislative setbacks, weak contracts, the end of key programs, and their own previous, disastrous job actions, the controllers began to plot what would have been unthinkable to them a decade earlier and what was already becoming elusive to many private sector workers under the Carter-era austerity: a big, national, traffic-paralyzing, strike.

 
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