How Ronald Reagan Broke the Air Traffic Controllers Union--And Why That Fight Still Matters
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While Reagan never wavered, making the hard-line stance part of his projection of character and resolve, the larger labor movement buckled. The controllers showed remarkable unity, and the activists understood what was at stake, but the AFL-CIO offered no direction besides the massive Solidarity Day march in September 1981. Many labor leaders were already bitter that PATCO had endorsed Reagan and then, after being attacked, looked for a larger solidarity. The pilots’ union, which could have shut down the entire industry, kept on working, unwilling to move out of professionalism and longstanding tensions with the controllers, exacerbated by the inconveniences PATCO had caused with its sickouts and slowdowns. Even a firebrand like the International Association of Machinists’ William Winpisinger, who could have called out the machinists and paralyzed much of air travel, would not act without the pilots. As a result, PATCO faced the federal government without reinforcements. The strike, in preparation for years, seemed to end almost before it began.
Collision Course, an important and crisply written study, rests on a mountain of research conducted on an era that the rest of us writing on the period have been too willing to rush to synthesis. But there are two interrelated problems with Collision Course. One is the author’s style. McCartin has a love affair with the simple declarative sentence; I don’t recall his developing a metaphor or rich description in the book. At its most detrimental, this tips the book toward dry institutional history, and one senses that a historian with a more literary flare might have been able to penetrate the psychology, the mood, and period more deeply. But at its best, McCartin’s style perfectly melds author and subject; this overly politicized struggle needs what McCartin, one of our most discerning historians, has to offer: a clear eye and a strong back willing to do the heavy lifting in the archives. It amounts to a tradeoff: McCartin may have drained a bit of the moral drama out of the PATCO story, but perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe it needed it.
The bigger problem is context. This is a narrowly circumscribed history that focuses almost exclusively on its subject. Anyone in search of a broader understanding of the social, political, and even economic issues from the sixties through the early eighties will have to look elsewhere. It is not obvious that as PATCO was becoming a union, the nation was in a massive strike wave, the cities were burning, the culture polarized, or even that the civil rights or women’s movements were on the move. Except for episodic suggestions, one might not know from this book that there were major political realignments underway or that there was a massive shift in how workers and labor relations were unfolding well outside of PATCO and the public sector. The balance is sometimes odd. We learn, for example, that PATCO brought ten cases about access to more convenient parking for controllers to arbitration in 1975, but we never really explore the fact that private sector union density was already falling apart by the seventies and that the whole idea of what it meant to be a worker, let alone a trade unionist, was on the ropes.
Reaganism is partially a symptom of these changes and partially an agent of them. And if the administration didn’t intend a revolution in labor relations, context matters even more. Somewhere between Nixon’s tolerance of the postal strike in 1970 and Reagan’s destruction of PATCO in 1981, a sea change occurred in the culture of a nation. As the author concludes, PATCO is “prologue to a story still unfolding.” For that reason alone we owe McCartin a debt for setting us straight on what happened in a peculiar dispute that launched a revolution. In strange forms do new ages come.