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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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For those who tend to see PATCO as a simple morality tale, the most surprising dimension of McCartin’s story is that what both the Left and the Right see in PATCO today is not what appeared to be underway at the time. For instance, although the union had long pent-up demands, the 1981 contract was actually pretty good, given the weak history of federal bargaining and the austerity budgets at the time. McCartin explains that the deal “brought them far more than any previous FAA-PATCO contract, more than any other contact offer ever proffered by the federal government.” It was nothing less than “a precedent-setting document.” Despite the generosity on the part of the feds that was designed to avert a strike, the contract was not enough to contain the “pent-up fury” after thirteen years of conflict and three disappointing contracts across the previous decade. 

When the dramatic standoff finally came, McCartin sees only one issue at stake for the president—and it wasn’t the future of capitalism. For Reagan, the workers violated their oath not to strike, and that was that. He gave them forty-eight hours to get back to work before he would fire them. “Dammit, the law is the law and the law says they cannot strike,” David Gergen noted the president as saying. “Having struck, they have quit their jobs, and they will not be rehired.” If there was a larger political intent in the crushing of PATCO, it might be found in the Reagan’s wanting to seem tough in the eyes of the American people (already impressed with his jovial recovery from being shot) and the world (some see PATCO as Reagan’s first major act of foreign policy—scaring the Russians).

A small cloud remains over one of the great mysteries of that moment despite McCartin’s encyclopedic study: did Reagan’s people believe they might be able recast labor relations? Here’s where context matters. McCartin traces the impact of the strike after the dramatic actions of August 1981 while steering clear of ever saying that this was meant to be a signal to the private sector to declare open season on the American labor force. But he also never quite says that it was not, either. In fact, he is most generous when comparing PATCO to its legacy in Governor Scott Walker’s promise to “drop a bomb” on public workers in Wisconsin in 2011. In comparison, Reagan is a very sympathetic figure:

Reagan had not set out to “drop a bomb” on PATCO. Unlike Walker, he had negotiated with the union and only drew the line at condoning an illegal strike. Not only had Reagan never challenged the controllers’ bargaining rights, he had authorized his aides to exceed what the law had allowed in trying to reach an accord with the controllers during a budget season when he was seeing cutbacks elsewhere. But none of that seemed to matter thirty years later.

McCartin’s post-strike chapter on the creation of “PATCO syndrome”—a psychology of defeat and demoralization for labor—is excellent, but there’s a little something missing between the actions of the president and the entire reformulation of American labor relations. 

There’s an understandable whiff of nostalgia for the rationality of the Reagan years here. Yet the administration’s unwillingness to even discuss ever rehiring the controllers (while lionizing striking workers at the Lenin Shipyards in Poland and providing an array of other amnesties for more grievous crimes) suggests something more mean-spirited was afoot than just a firm belief in oaths not to strike. By the time it was all over, as AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland explained to Reagan’s counselor, Ed Meese, the focus of the strike drifted from union rights to simple decency toward the fired workers. “We’re not talking about five-letter words like PATCO and union,” declared Kirkland, advocating for rehiring the workers after the strike was broken, “we’re talking about going on the battlefield and shooting the wounded.” 

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