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

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. 

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. 

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.

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.” 

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.

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