The PATCO Strike, Reagan and the Roots of Labor’s Decline

Joe Burns

If you ask any union activist what went wrong with the labor move­ment in the last sev­er­al decades, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about the 1981 PAT­CO strike. And for good rea­son: Pres­i­dent Ronald Reagan’s harsh response to an ille­gal strike by fed­er­al gov­ern­ment employ­ees, mem­bers of the Pro­fes­sion­al Air Traf­fic Con­trollers Orga­ni­za­tion, was inter­pret­ed by many as a green light from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment for union­bust­ing, and ush­ered in the vicious employ­er attacks of the 1980s.

With his new book Col­li­sion Course: Ronald Rea­gan, the Air Traf­fic Con­trollers and the Strike that Changed Amer­i­ca, Joseph McCartin, one of the nation’s lead­ing schol­ars on the decline of the strike, has writ­ten the defin­i­tive account of the PAT­CO strike. McCartin details two decades of strug­gle by often-mil­i­tant fed­er­al employ­ees cul­mi­nat­ing in the failed 1981 strike. In doing so, McCartin offers new incites into the PAT­CO strike and pokes holes in some pop­u­lar conceptions.

Today, many think of the PAT­CO strike’s impact on pri­vate-sec­tor unions. Reagan’s hard-line stance val­i­dat­ed a long-allowed but lit­tle-used tac­tic of per­ma­nent­ly replac­ing strik­ing work­ers. In its 1938 Mack­ay Radio deci­sion, the U.S. Supreme Court indi­cat­ed employ­ers were free to retal­i­ate against strik­ers by giv­ing away their jobs in the event of an unsuc­cess­ful strike.

Well into the 1970s, with the labor move­ment still strong and mil­i­tant tra­di­tions still alive, employ­ers large­ly avoid­ed using the per­ma­nent replace­ment tac­tic. Reagan’s hard line against PAT­CO strik­ers helped nor­mal­ize this anti-union behav­ior, how­ev­er; in the 1980s, employ­ers rou­tine­ly threat­ened to per­ma­nent­ly replace strik­ers, or in fact replaced them.

Even though PAT­CO is best remem­bered for its impact on pri­vate-sec­tor unions, McCartin’s account reminds us that PAT­CO was a pub­lic-sec­tor strike. As fed­er­al employ­ees, PAT­CO strik­ers were not legal­ly allowed to strike or even bar­gain over wages. With the renewed attacks on pub­lic employ­ee bar­gain­ing rights we’ve seen recent­ly in Wis­con­sin, Ohio and else­where, pub­lic-sec­tion union­ists should find PATCO’s strug­gle, and Col­li­sion Course, instructive.

Indeed, most of the book is spent dis­cussing the decade and a half lead­ing up to the PAT­CO strike. As McCartin stat­ed in an online dis­cus­sion of the book:

When I began the book, I had no idea that I would need to take the sto­ry all the way back to 1960. But I dis­cov­ered that there was no way to real­ly under­stand why the con­trollers struck in 1981 with­out explain­ing the 20 years of strug­gle and dis­ap­point­ment that led to that moment. The prob­lems they sought to address were many. As I show in the book, they were ini­tial­ly moti­vat­ed by the desire to make the sys­tem safer and to have a voice in poli­cies that would do this – this was some­thing that their employ­er, the Fed­er­al Avi­a­tion Admin­is­tra­tion resisted.

By refus­ing to pro­vide a legal process of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing in which con­trollers could bar­gain over wages, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment helped prompt the strike.

At great risk to their careers, PAT­CO mem­bers repeat­ed­ly engaged in slow­downs and thin­ly dis­guised sick­outs through­out the 1970s. Accord­ing to McCartin, Between 1972 and 1977, PAT­CO emerged as the most mil­i­tant, most dense­ly orga­nized union in any bar­gain­ing unit of the nation’s largest employ­er, the U.S. gov­ern­ment.” Many oth­er fed­er­al employ­ee strikes of the peri­od were wild­cat actions, dis­owned by the union lead­er­ship. In con­trast, PAT­CO repeat­ed­ly orga­nized strikes and slow­downs, going so far as to cre­ate a strike fund in 1977.

Not that the going was always easy. Work­ers were fired, the union lost dues check-off for a peri­od and, with­out sol­id col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing laws, gains were erod­ed over time. Yet PAT­CO activists fought and built a strong union through the 1970s and some­how usu­al­ly forced man­age­ment to get fired strike lead­ers rehired. As one PAT­CO slo­gan put it: There are no ille­gal strikes, just unsuc­cess­ful ones.” By that, PAT­CO activists meant that even though labor law did not per­mit strik­ing, if strik­ers were strong and unit­ed they could defy the ban on striking.

But anoth­er les­son of the PAT­CO strike is that con­text mat­ters. By the late 1970s, the polit­i­cal ter­rain was shift­ing for pub­lic employ­ees. In a process sim­i­lar to today, many Democ­rats turned on pub­lic-employ­ee unions. Indeed, we see in Col­li­sion Course that the roots of the PAT­CO strike lie, in part, in the Carter administration’s fail­ure to reform fed­er­al bar­gain­ing laws. Frus­trat­ed by years of neglect and ero­sion of hard-won gains, PAT­CO mem­bers were itch­ing for bat­tle just as con­di­tions were wors­en­ing for pub­lic employees.

In fact, read­ers will find many sim­i­lar­i­ties to today’s attack on pub­lic-employ­ee unions. In the late 1970s, an aggres­sive union-bust­ing wing of the Repub­li­can Par­ty attacked pub­lic employ­ee strikes. This wing sup­plied pres­sure on Rea­gan from the right, push­ing him to take a hard line against PAT­CO. Aban­doned by Demo­c­ra­t­ic allies, strik­ing pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers found them­selves on the defen­sive. Indeed, McCartin found one of the results of the PAT­CO strike to be a dras­tic decline in pub­lic-employ­ee strikes.

Unlike PATCO’s actions of the ear­ly 1970s, the 1981 strike end­ed with strik­ers fired and the union bust­ed. One of the more inter­est­ing rev­e­la­tions in Col­li­sion Course was that new­ly elect­ed Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan was not ini­tial­ly gun­ning for PAT­CO. PAT­CO endorsed Rea­gan and through the threat of a strike, PAT­CO nego­tia­tors were able to nego­ti­ate in 1981 what oth­er fed­er­al unions saw as a break­through con­tract. But rank-and-file PAT­CO mem­bers, fed up by years of abu­sive treat­ment and stress, vot­ed the con­tract down, and the strike was on.

After decades of union-bust­ing, per­haps Col­li­sion Course will prompt a re-exam­i­na­tion of the effects of labor law on the decline of our move­ment. For the last 15 years, the labor move­ment has large­ly ignored con­fronting basic issues of pow­er. Col­li­sion Courses treat­ment of work­er and polit­i­cal pow­er should help inform trade unions’ strate­gies today, and per­haps prompt dis­cus­sion of how to revi­tal­ize the great­est source of work­er pow­er: the strike.

Joe Burns works for the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants-CWA. The opin­ions expressed here are his own.

Joe Burns, a for­mer local union pres­i­dent active in strike sol­i­dar­i­ty, is a labor nego­tia­tor and attor­ney. He is the author of the book Reviv­ing the Strike: How Work­ing Peo­ple Can Regain Pow­er and Trans­form Amer­i­ca (IG Pub­lish­ing, 2011) and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_CLceBbPGHH’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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