The Trump Administration Just Put Ronald Reagan Alongside Eugene Debs In Its Labor Hall of Honor

Thor Benson

During the course of his presidency, Ronald Reagan became the most powerful union buster in the world. (Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)

On Thurs­day, Labor Sec­re­tary Alexan­der Acos­ta announced that for­mer Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan will be enter­ing the Labor Depart­men­t’s Hall of Hon­or, join­ing the ranks of lumi­nar­ies rang­ing from Moth­er Jones to Eugene Debs.

In his announce­ment, Acos­ta cit­ed Rea­gan’s tenure as the pres­i­dent of the Screen Actors Guild, along with a series of per­son­al anec­dotes, to explain that the Gip­per was a friend of the work­ing class. How­ev­er, one does not have to be a his­to­ry schol­ar to under­stand that Rea­gan was in fact an ene­my of orga­nized labor through­out his presidency.

To start, we can look to his fir­ing of over 11,000 air traf­fic con­trollers in 1981. More than any oth­er labor dis­pute of the past three decades, Reagan’s con­fronta­tion with the Pro­fes­sion­al Air Traf­fic Con­trollers Orga­ni­za­tion, or Pat­co, under­mined the bar­gain­ing pow­er of Amer­i­can work­ers and their labor unions,” Joseph A. McCartin, a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty, wrote for the New York Times in 2011.

Rea­gan was enraged after thou­sands of air traf­fic con­trollers walked off the job — the result of the Fed­er­al Avi­a­tion Admin­is­tra­tion refus­ing to meet the bar­gain­ing demands of the Pro­fes­sion­al Air Traf­fic Con­trollers Orga­ni­za­tion. The union want­ed a wage increase for con­trollers and a slight­ly short­er work­week. Rea­gan respond­ed by fir­ing the con­trollers when they refused to return to work.

Richard Wolff, a pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics emer­i­tus at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts, Amherst, claims that unions nev­er real­ly recov­ered from the blow Rea­gan deliv­ered in 1981. The labor move­ment until that time had come to believe that it was strong enough that, even if it had a rough bat­tle, it could work a com­pro­mise and sal­vage cer­tain basic safeties, such as not replac­ing peo­ple dur­ing the strike,” Wolff tells In These Times. All of these con­ven­tions and assump­tions were smashed.”

That was just the begin­ning. Dur­ing the course of his pres­i­den­cy, Ronald Rea­gan became the most pow­er­ful union buster in the world. He stacked the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board with offi­cials who vehe­ment­ly opposed unions, caus­ing long-term dam­age to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and work­ers’ rights in the Unit­ed States.

After the air traf­fic con­troller deba­cle, cor­po­ra­tions became embold­ened and tar­get­ed unions with a new zeal, ille­gal­ly fir­ing work­ers for orga­niz­ing with the knowl­edge that they could large­ly evade pun­ish­ment under Reagan’s labor board.

Since the mid­dle of the 1970s, union mem­ber­ship has dropped from 26.7 per­cent of the work­force to just 13.1 per­cent, and Rea­gan played a sig­nif­i­cant role in that decline.

Rea­gan’s attacks on unions, along with his pro-cor­po­rate eco­nom­ic poli­cies, also had a major impact on the income of work­ing-class Amer­i­cans. Wages for the bot­tom 70 per­cent of Amer­i­can wage earn­ers have been stag­nant since around the time Rea­gan took office, accord­ing to the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute.

Among oth­er fac­tors, this lack of growth can be attrib­uted to the steady reduc­tion in union mem­ber­ship, as well as anti-work­er trade poli­cies imple­ment­ed under Rea­gan and suc­ces­sive administrations.

Reagan’s eco­nom­ic agen­da was focused on pur­su­ing poli­cies that increased the wealth of the rich, includ­ing reduc­ing the top income tax rate from 70 per­cent to 28 per­cent, while increas­ing the tax bur­den on the work­ing and mid­dle classes.

By weak­en­ing the labor move­ment, Rea­gan cer­tain­ly con­tributed to its inabil­i­ty to do bet­ter than keep stag­nant wages,” Wolff says. Where­as before Rea­gan, real wages had risen steadi­ly across a 30-year period.”

To por­tray Ronald Rea­gan as a friend of the work­ing class is not only fal­la­cious — it is dan­ger­ous. If the Trump admin­is­tra­tion does indeed see the Rea­gan years as a mod­el for its own poli­cies, as seems to be the case, it’s like­ly that income inequal­i­ty will con­tin­ue to rise while U.S. work­ers con­tin­ue to strug­gle for a decent stan­dard of liv­ing and dig­ni­ty on the job.

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