Re Labor Day: Reagan and the PATCO Strike

With Labor Day almost upon us, it’s appropriate we discuss anything germane to what was once referred quaintly and respectfully (if not affectionately) as the “working class.”  Strikes, protests, street violence, the incremental passage of labor laws:  All part of the American Labor Movement’s dramatic history.

Let us begin with a look back at what many labor activists regard as the precise moment when America’s unions began their dreadful and inexorable decline, and what labor expert Joseph McCartin once called, “one of the most important events in late twentieth century U.S. labor history.”  We’re referring to the 1981 PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike.  That’s the one where President Reagan fired everybody.

Because it was illegal for federal employees to go on strike, their startling walkout appeared to everyone (even hardcore union honchos were scratching their heads) as a clear-cut violation of federal law.  Predictably, declaring the strike to be a threat to “national safety,” Reagan ordered them back to work, citing the Taft-Hartley Act (1947).

Of the nearly 13,000 who went on strike, only about 1,300 heeded the President’s ominous warning and returned to work.  Ultimately, Reagan wound up firing a total of 11,345 air traffic controllers.  These well-meaning men and women were not only fired, they were banned for life from ever holding a federal civil service job.

The PATCO debacle was huge, not only substantively but symbolically.  By resolutely taking on a high-profile federal union, and slapping it around in public—slapping it around with everyone watching—Ronald Reagan not only transformed himself into a hero of the anti-labor Right, his actions caused Corporate America to stand on its hind legs and take notice.

The way Corporate America now saw it, maybe the country’s labor unions weren’t the big, bad muscle organizations we’d always thought they were.  Maybe they weren’t nearly as formidable as we surmised.  Indeed, maybe their bark was far, far worse than their bite.

In fact, like the schoolyard bully who melts into a quivering mass of jelly when confronted by the first kid with the guts to stand up to him, maybe America’s unions had been bullshitting us all along.  In any event, the PATCO strike marked the beginning of all the bad stuff that has happened to unions over the last 36 years, stuff that is still happening.

But despite Reagan being the obvious villain, there are parts of the PATCO episode that remain disturbing.  For one, PATCO (founded in 1968) was already viewed by the House of Labor as a “screwball” outfit.  How screwball?  In the 1980 presidential election, only three notable unions chose to endorse the Republican Reagan over the incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter:  the Teamsters (“screwball” in their own unique way), the air line pilots, and, yes, PATCO.

For another, the PATCO membership had elected a brand new president, one Robert Poli, a man who, by all accounts, was charismatic and profoundly effective as a public speaker—a rabble-rouser and motivator—but who was woefully inexperienced and virtually clueless as a “leader.”   A loud-mouth firebrand….and little else.

And here’s the third thing.  By walking off the job, these air traffic controllers, as gutsy and committed as they were (and one has to admire their solidarity and determination), had practically dared Reagan to fire them.  “Here we are, Mr. President.  We are going on strike, which we realize is illegal and punishable by termination.  What are you going to do about it, sir?  Frankly, we don’t think you have the balls to do anything.”

At a press conference, Reagan read a letter that these workers had signed upon being hired.  It included this statement: “I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the Government of the United States or any agency thereof.” Granted, the words were largely symbolic and corny, but these workers had given their oath, and that oath, once revealed, caused the public to line up against them.

But here’s the really incredible part.  Reagan balked.  Instead of immediately firing every union member who walked off the job, Reagan, inexplicably, backed off.  Instead, he announced a 48-hour grace period.  Even though these workers violated federal law, and could have instantly forfeited their jobs, Reagan gave them 48 hours to reconsider.  Knowing how high the stakes were, Reagan offered them a second chance.  A chance to think it over.

Unfortunately, the truculent Poli continued to whip the membership into a frenzy.  He persuaded them to reject this peace offering, clinging to the view that the government was bluffing.  And by doing so, the union basically pissed away the one chance it had of coming out of this thing looking good.

So there was a day in early August, 1981, when American workers were desperately in need of a smart, shrewd, and wisely pragmatic leader.  Instead, they found themselves under the spell of a reckless self-promoter.  To say it ended badly would be an understatement.  Poli got bounced, thousands of people lost their jobs, and PATCO was decertified and dissolved later that same year.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: dmacaray@gmail.com.

Read other articles by David.