Labor still reeling from 1981 PATCO strike
Georgetown professor tells Pacific Northwest Labor History Association of the broad impact the strike had on labor
By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Historian Joseph McCartin set out to study the 1981 air traffic controllers strike, and ended up knee-deep in a historical mystery: What caused the sudden death, or near-disappearance, of the strike?
After 1980, American workers stopped going on strike. The year before, there had been 235 major strikes (strikes of more than 1,000 workers), in which over a million workers took part. Last year there were 20, involving just 70,000 workers.
McCartin, associate professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., is writing a book about the air traffic controllers’ strike, in which President Ronald Reagan fired 11,359 federal employees. It was the symbolic beginning of an era of union-busting and permanent replacement of strikers. Though work on his book is still under way, McCartin shared his conclusions May 12 with a Portland audience of amateur and professional labor historians at the annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association.
McCartin said overwhelmingly, the members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) were white male ex-military, having learned their profession in the armed services. They were among the highest- paid federal employees, and had skills that it took at least three years to acquire.
Their union was politically conservative, and backed Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. They wanted the Federal Aviation Administration to agree to better working conditions, better pay and a shorter workweek. Reagan, a former leader of the Screen Actors Guild, told them he understood their grievances.
But they came to feel he betrayed their trust. FAA didn’t budge in contract negotiations. It is illegal for federal employees to strike, but others had done so without repercussions. When PATCO members struck on Aug. 3, 1981, Reagan told them to return to work within 48 hours or be fired and permanently banned them from federal service.
They thought their strike would bring commercial aviation to a halt, and that public opinion would not tolerate it. But one in 10 strikers crossed the picket line, and kept airport control towers operating alongside managers and military controllers. And the public rallied around Reagan for standing up to so-called “union blackmail,” McCartin said.
It was a disaster for labor.
But for McCartin, the PATCO strike was not a singular, exceptional event. It was the most prominent example of a pattern. McCartin found a remarkably similar strike in 1977 in Atlanta, when about 1,300 sanitation workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) were permanently replaced by Democratic Mayor Maynard Jackson after a 48-hour ultimatum.
Looking at the statistics, the pattern is unmistakable. From 1947 to 1977, the strike had held steady. American workers were surpassed only by Italy and Finland in the number of workdays per year lost to strikes. The 1950s were the most strike-prone decade, with an average of 352 major work stoppages a year. The 1960s averaged 283 a year, and the 1970s averaged 289. And then it dropped, dramatically to 83 a year on average in the ’80s, 35 a year in the ’90s, and 23 a year so far in the ’00s. February 2003 was historic, says McCartin — the first month, since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping track in 1947, that not a single strike of more than 1,000 workers was begun anywhere in America.
For McCartin, understanding why workers stopped striking is an intriguing historical puzzle — and may be the key to reviving labor.
McCartin has come up with several explanations.
One is the example of the PATCO strike itself. Every city had an airport. It was the most widely publicized strike since World War II. So it was a defeat felt all over. It showed the impotency of the labor movement. Workers saw what could happen, and employers felt that permanently replacing strikers had been legitimated by the president of the United States.
So permanent replacement became a much more common response to strikes. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1938 that strikers couldn’t be fired for striking, but could be “permanently replaced.” Of course, that stripped the hard-won legal right to strike of much of its meaning. But employers seldom used the right to permanently replace strikers, because it was considered unfair and draconian by the public. Before 1980, employers hired permanent replacements in less than 2 percent of strikes. In the 1980s, they used permanent replacements in more than 14 percent of strikes. And adding to the psychological impact on workers, permanent replacement was often a feature of big highly-publicized strikes — Hormel, Phelps-Dodge, International Paper, Greyhound. So workers came to believe that if they struck, they would lose their jobs.
Their willingness to strike was also hit hard by the bad economy. Unemployment reached a post-war high of 9.7 percent in 1982, which meant that in theory, other workers were ready to take strikers’ jobs. The poorest workers were more desperate: The minimum wage was not increased at all from 1981 to 1990.
Deindustrialization and globalization picked up speed in the 1980s. Basic manufacturing — labor’s stronghold and the birthplace of the mass strike as a vehicle for workers to get a greater share of increasing productivity — was more and more headed overseas. Containerization was making it much easier to ship goods, meaning that workers in different parts of the globe were now in competition with each other. The cascade of U.S. plant closings and mass layoffs that began in 1980s have never stopped to this day.
And deregulation, begun under President Jimmy Carter, had an effect, introducing competition into highly regulated and densely union industries. Airlines were deregulated in 1978, followed by trucking in 1980, which undermined the Teamsters master freight agreement.
The U.S. had its first trade deficit in 1971, but deficits shot up after 1982, and even more after 1997.
Finally, McCartin says, there’s been a shift in the labor movement brought on by the emergence of public-sector union power. From 1955 to 1975, the number of public-sector union workers rose 10-fold. By the end of the 1970s, public-sector workers were more likely to be union than private-sector workers. And that affected the public’s perception of strikes.
“Striker replacement was seen as unfair and divisive by the majority,” McCartin said, “but when it comes to public-sector strikes, the public held a slightly different view. Private-sector strikes were against profit-seeking corporations, but public-sector strikes were strikes against the public, it could be argued.”
So it’s harder for public-sector unions to strike: They have to prove to the court of public opinion that they aren’t putting their own interest above the public’s.
Whatever the reasons, strikes aren’t just down in the United States; they’ve been going down globally, across the industrialized world, for 20 years. Something profound has been happening to workers, McCartin says, and it may be the most significant development to unions since the 19th century.
The majority of U.S. workers would like to have a union, according to polls. But McCartin says they won’t act unless the potential rewards make unions worth the risk. And the strike is labor’s ultimate weapon for getting the goods.
“Without restoring workers’ ability to use the strike,” McCartin said, “it’s difficult to see how unions can be revived.”
When air traffic controllers took on Ronald Reagan
Lessons of PATCO
August 3, 2001 | Page 10
AUGUST 3 marks the 20th anniversary of one of the toughest battles in organized labor’s recent history--the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike in 1981.
With his busting of the 17-month strike, Republican President Ronald Reagan sent a message to the labor movement that he and his big business backers were in charge. It was Act One in what would be a decade of unprecedented greed for Corporate America at the expense of U.S. workers.
Yet despite their defeat, the 13,000-strong air traffic controllers union demonstrated inspiring militancy, unity and determination--conducting an illegal strike against a popular president with little support from other unions.
ELIZABETH SCHULTE tells the story of the PATCO strike-and explains its lessons for today.
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"THE STRIKE is a result of frustration that’s been building up for years," PATCO striker Robert Devery told Business Week in 1981. "We’re not on strike over money. Not 10 or 20 percent of these people would have walked out over money. People are tired of being dumped on, and they want to make it to retirement."
Air traffic control is one of the most stressful jobs there is. Hundreds of airline passengers’ lives hang in the balance with every decision a controller makes. As a result, ulcers, heart conditions, hypertension and alcoholism are common among controllers.
PATCO’s main demand centered on safer working conditions, including a 32-hour workweek, updated computer equipment and retirement after 20 years of service. Unlike every other country in the world, U.S. controllers were the only ones forced to work 40-hour weeks.
On top of that, they worked eight-hour shifts without breaks. And often, up to 20 hours of mandatory overtime was added on each week. For all of these reasons, some 89 percent left before retirement age. About 40 percent of these left to collect disability retirement.
The federal government got a lot of mileage out of attacking PATCO’s demand for a $10,000 wage increase. But in fact, the salary for a starting controller was just $15,000 a year. It took seven years and just the right transfer opportunities for a worker to get to $29,000 a year.
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CONTROLLERS’ BREWING anger over these conditions fed sentiment for a walkout--even though, as federal employees, they were barred from striking.
PATCO was one of the few unions, along with the Air Line Pilots Association, to endorse Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. But when Reagan won the White House in 1980, it was Corporate America, not his union endorsers, that he was eager to prove himself to.
While Reagan launched the attack on PATCO, the previous administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter prepared the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under Carter conducted a management campaign of harassment against union controllers. And 12 months before the government’s contract with PATCO was set to expire, Carter formed a "Management Strike Contingency Force" to prepare for a walkout--including the use of scabs.
Reagan happily finished what Carter started. In February 1981, a month before contract negotiations began, the FAA and the Justice Department drew up a list of PATCO militants to arrest. Just four hours into the strike, Reagan got on TV to threaten strikers that they would be terminated if they didn’t get back to work in 48 hours.
Then the movie actor-president told reporters a story about an unidentified striker who supposedly resigned from PATCO, saying, "How can I ask my kids to obey the law if I don’t?" But PATCO members stood strong.
On the first day of the strike on August 3, 85 percent of union controllers went out. More than 6,000 flights out of a daily load of about 14,000 were immediately canceled. Two days later, Reagan fired the striking controllers.
During the walkout, the FAA was able to keep air traffic at 70 percent of pre-strike levels, largely thanks to its scabbing operation. But the administration also depended on something controllers hadn’t anticipated--total disregard for public safety. According to the union, 481 near misses were reported in the first year of the strike--compared to 10 reported in the 10 years before the walkout.
The Reagan administration used everything in its arsenal to teach PATCO--and every other union--a lesson. Militants were arrested, jailed and fined. Some PATCO members with federal mortgages lost their homes. Others were denied when they tried to adopt children.
The union was fined millions of dollars, and its $3.5 million strike fund was frozen. Eventually, the government succeeded in decertifying PATCO.
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UNION LEADERS had a chance to show what solidarity was all about. But they passed it by. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland denounced Reagan’s attack on PATCO. But he also sent a letter to AFL-CIO affiliates, discouraging them from taking any type of strike action in solidarity.
"I personally do not think that the trade union movement should undertake anything that would represent punishing, injuring or inconveniencing the public at large for the sins or the transgressions of the Reagan administration," Kirkland wrote.
Striker Terry Duffy had a response for Kirkland, published years later: "For those of you who think it is revolutionary for government workers to strike, I tell you that this is the only country in the free world that does not allow government workers to strike. I know a strike causes inconveniences. It is supposed to."
William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and a self-described "socialist," could have dealt a serious blow to Reagan. If IAM members who serviced the planes had walked out, airports across the country would have been shut down.
But Winpisinger refused to call out IAM members, citing the IAM’s no-strike clause with the airlines. Other union leaders never mobilized the solidarity that they could have--with a few saying that PATCO got its just desserts for supporting Reagan.
Some union locals supported the PATCO strikers. "I have nothing bad to say about any of the local unions--they’ve been great with us," Ed Zacovic, president of PATCO Local 203 in Oberlin, Ohio, told Socialist Worker in 1982.
"But where I have my biggest problem is with the hierarchy in Washington. They’re just like congressmen and senators. All they care about is themselves and the image they’re going to portray to people... Lane Kirkland didn’t go out to the grassroots to see exactly how they felt about PATCO and our strike. I think that if he would have, he would have found out that the people would have been behind us, and something would have been done."
Controllers in Canada walked out briefly in solidarity with PATCO before they were threatened with huge fines and suspensions. And the sentiment existed to take on the bosses in the U.S.
The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Day march in Washington, D.C., in September 1981, a few weeks after the PATCO strike began, drew half a million union members. The AFL-CIO gave the rally its name after the mass union movement Solidarnosc (Solidarity) that was shaking Poland’s bosses.
The hypocrisy of Reagan--who championed free trade unions in "communist" Poland while crushing a free trade union in the U.S.--was plain to see.
But union leaders missed the opportunity to call for solidarity with PATCO from the podium--and spent most of their speeches endorsing Democrats in upcoming congressional elections.
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YEARS OF relying on a strategy of negotiations and lobbying Democrats left the labor movement ill-prepared to help PATCO take on Reagan--and powerless against the bosses’ unrelenting attack on workers that followed.
In a 1982 Business Week survey of 400 executives, one in five agreed that, "Although we don’t need concessions, we are taking advantage of the bargaining climate to ask for them." In 1983, a third of workers with new contracts had agreed to wage cuts. By 1987, three-quarters of contracts covering 1,000 workers or more included concessions.
Discounting a few brave and bitter battles, such as the 1985 Hormel meatpackers strike, union leaders failed to take on the bosses. By 1987, strike levels fell to the lowest number since the unions’ no-strike pledge during the Second World War.
For Reagan and the bosses, PATCO was the test case to set an example for the rest of the labor movement. "It was important to break PATCO because, although we may have had only 13,000 members, we were the strongest union in the federal sector," Local 203’s Zacovic said at the time.
"We questioned everything they said, and they didn’t like it. They didn’t like us talking about a strike, and they thought that if they can hold us down, they’ll hold down all the workers in the federal sector."
Our side needs to learn the right lessons from the PATCO strike. First, concessions only weaken us. And second, solidarity is our only bargaining chip. Despite the devastating defeat and ruined lives, few PATCO members regretted the strike.
"Given the same set of circumstances at any given time, I would do it again," said one striker in 1984. "There is no doubt that history will prove PATCO was right in their actions. Maybe legally wrong, but surely morally right."
On August 3, 1981 nearly 13,000 of the 17,500 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) walked off the job, hoping to disrupt the nation's transportation system to the extent that the federal government would accede to its demands for higher wages, a shorter work week, and better retirement benefits. At a press conference in the White House Rose Garden that same day, President Reagan responded with a stern ultimatum: The strikers were to return to work within 48 hours or face termination. As federal employees the controllers were violating the no-strike clause of their employment contracts. In 1955 Congress had made such strikes a crime punishable by a fine or one year of incarceration -- a law upheld by the Supreme Court in 1971. Nevertheless, 22 unauthorized strikes had occurred in recent years -- by postal workers, Government Printing Office and Library of Congress employees, and by air traffic controllers who staged "sick-outs" in 1969 and 1970. Negotiations between PATCO and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began in February 1981. PATCO president Robert Poli demanded an across-the-board wage increase of $10,000/yr for controllers whose pay ranged from $20,462 to $49,229; the reduction of a five-day, 40-hour work week to a four-day, 32-hour work week; and full retirement after 20 years service -- a package with a $770 million price tag. The controllers argued that they deserved these considerations due to the highly stressful nature of their very important work. The federal government balked at these budget-busting demands of more money for less work, well aware that other federal employees were likely to take action to improve their lot if PATCO succeeded. The FAA made a $40 million counteroffer which included a shorter work week and a 10 percent pay hike for night shifts and those controllers who doubled as instructors. Further negotiations between Poli and Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis sweetened the pot even more. Nonetheless, 95 percent of PATCO's membership rejected the final settlement. The FAA began work on a contingency plan that would go into effect if a strike occurred. Designed to take place during the busiest time of the year for airlines, the strike threatened major carriers like Braniff, Eastern, American and TWA, who reported losses of $30 million a day during the strike. These companies had been counting on a summer surge in business to offset losses due to fare and route deregulation which had spurred the growth of new, smaller carriers that effectively competed with the giants. Concern grew regarding the extent to which the strike would impact business and the economy. Air transportation was a $30 billion-a-year business; every day 14,000 commercial flights carried 800,000 passengers -- 60 percent of them on business trips -- while 10,000 tons of air cargo was transported daily. Airlines employed 340,000 people and revenue losses due to the strike forced some to resort to layoffs and management wage cuts. The fresh fruit, fresh flower and fresh fish markets depended on swift air transport, as did other industry in need of spare parts, health care services for blood supplies, and the financial system for paper fund transfers. But other businesses prospered thanks to the strike -- among them Trailways and Greyhound, the Amtrak rail service, and car rental agencies, as travelers sought alternate means of transportation. To the chagrin of the PATCO strikers, and the surprise of nearly everyone else, the FAA's contingency plan functioned smoothly, minimizing the strike's effects. Approximately 3,000 supervisors joined 2,000 non-striking controllers and 900 military controllers in manning airport towers. The FAA ordered airlines at major airports to reduce scheduled flights by 50 percent during peak hours for safety reasons. Nearly 60 small airport towers were scheduled to be shut down indefinitely. The FAA's Oklahoma City training school, which normally produced 1,500 graduates per 17-21 week course, considered plans to increase that matriculation number to 5,500. (More than 45,000 people applied within four weeks of the strike's onset.) PATCO strikers made dire predictions about reduced air safety as a consequence of the 60-hour work week put in by their replacements, but in fact limited traffic and the extra monitoring efforts of the 33,000 Air Line Pilots Association members diminished the risk of an "aluminum shower," as controllers euphemistically called an air accident. Before long, about 80 percent of airline flights were operating as scheduled, while air freight remained virtually unaffected. There wasnt much support for the PATCO strikers. The public sided with the government and exhibited little sympathy for individuals whose earnings were already well above the national average. AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland accused Reagan of "brutal overkill" in firing the strikers, and another union leader complained that the president was engaged in "union-busting," but pilots and machinists continued to do their jobs in spite of the PATCO picket lines, while labor strategists criticized Poli for calling an ill-advised strike that damaged Labor's image. The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers considered a boycott of U.S. air traffic to show support for PATCO, but it never developed. (Canadian and Portuguese controllers did engage in a two-day boycott.) The federal dreadnought turned all its big guns on the hapless strikers. PATCO leaders were hauled off to jail for ignoring court injunctions against a strike. The Justice Department proceeded with indictments against 75 controllers. Federal judges levied fines amounting to $1 million a day against the union while the strike lasted. Over 11,000 strikers received their pink slips, while 1,200 went back to work within a week's time. Morale among the strikers was shaky. "I thought Reagan was bluffing," lamented one controller. In October the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified PATCO. Two months after the strike, a congressional committee report indicated that by January 1983 only two-thirds of the controllers needed for full and safe operation of air traffic would be in place, and recommended rehiring some of the strikers who had been fired. The administration curtly refused, and Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis declined even to meet with PATCO leader Robert Poli. By 1984 air traffic had increased by 6 percent while there were still 20 percent fewer controllers than had been on the job prior to the strike. According to journalist Haynes Johnson, the decisive manner in which Reagan handled the PATCO strike convinced many Americans that he was "the kind of leader the country longed for and thought it had lost: a strong president" -- in sharp contrast to the widely-held view that Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had been too indecisive. Reagan stressed that he derived no satisfaction from sacking the controllers. He pointed out that he was the first president to be a lifetime member of the AFL-CIO. And he was aware that PATCO had been one of the few unions to support his presidential bid. "I supported unions and the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively," he wrote in his memoirs, " but no president could tolerate an illegal strike by Federal employees."
A Reagan Letter to Robert Poli, PATCO (Oct. 20, 1980)
Dear Mr. Poli: I have been briefed by members of my staff as to the deplorable state of our nation's air traffic control system. They have told me that too few people working unreasonable hours with obsolete equipment has placed the nation's air travellers in unwarranted danger. In an area so clearly related to public safety the Carter administration has failed to act responsibly. You can rest assured that if I am elected President, I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety.... I pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the President and the air traffic controllers. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan Illustration in a leaflet distributed by the Los Angeles local of PATCO during the strike. It reads "If the blast don't get you...the fallout will." The leaflet urged pilots, flight attendants and others to support the strike.
The Economist, 27 June 1981, 15 August 1981
Newsweek, 29 June 1981
Time, 17 August 1981, 24 August 1981, 2 November 1981
U.S. News & World Report, 17 August 1981, 24 August 1981, 31 August 1981
Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years Haynes Johnson (New York: Doubleday, 1991)
An American Life Ronald Reagan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990)
theres 3 different stories of the fallout and the history of the PATCO strike