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“A free labor movement is essential to the preservation and expansion of free enterprise.” That’s what President Reagan wrote in a letter dated November 12, 1985. As president of the screen actors guild, he led a successful union strike. As governor of California, he supported the rights of government workers to unionize and bargain collectively. But in the early days of his presidency, he decided to break a strike by the air traffic controllers union. A labor historian describes the unique circumstances behind Reagan’s confrontation with PATCO and the consequences for American workers and politics.
- Joseph McCartin Associate professor of History at Georgetown University and author of "Labor's Great War."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan threatened to fire almost 13,000 air traffic controllers unless they called off their strike. He followed through on his threat, firing most of the workers represented by the professional air traffic controllers' organization. In a new book, Georgetown University history professor, Joseph McCartin, describes the circumstances behind Reagan's confrontation with PATCO.
MS. DIANE REHMThe title of his new book is "Collision Course." He joins me in the studio to talk about how the strike changed America. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, it's good to have you here.
MR. JOSEPH MCCARTINGood morning, Diane, it's a pleasure to be here.
REHMYou called the PATCO strike the most important event in the past half century of labor relations today. Unionized postal workers are -- and everybody else who's unionized is being blamed for what's happening in our country. How do you see it?
MCCARTINI think that's right. And I think a lot of this goes back to PATCO. No other strike in American history, in recent history at least, in the past half century, had the impact that that event had. No strike was as broad, geographically. It included everyone who worked in air traffic control from Maine to Porto Rico to Guam to Alaska and every place in between.
MCCARTINIt was covered by television media and every outlet. It was an extremely public event and became more so because of the President's immediate involvement in it. And because of that threat that he made, that you just eluded to, and because of what he did in following through on that threat, 48 hours later.
REHMIt's fascinating to read his historical...
REHM...activity regarding unions and then see what he did with PATCO.
MCCARTINIndeed, there's a real deep irony in what happened between Ronald Reagan and the air traffic controllers. Because as most of your readers or your listeners might well be familiar, Ronald Reagan was a union leader himself, earlier in his career, President of the Screen Actors Guild. In 1952, he led the first strike of actors in that union against the studios.
MCCARTINIn fact, Reagan even eluded to this at the time of PATCO. He distinguished between strikes in the private sector, as in Hollywood say, from those in the public sector. But Reagan was a union man early in his career. And that former union leader dealt such a sharp and decisive blow to the labor movement was deeply ironic.
REHMWhat was the differentiation he made between public and private workers?
MCCARTINHis argument was that in government, you can't stop the assembly line. That there are certain jobs that have to happen. And he did not believe that air traffic controllers and other federal workers ought to have the right to collectively withhold their labor and go on strike.
REHMDidn't he have a good point?
MCCARTINI think he did. But what he did not understand was the 20 years of frustration and conflict that led up to the walkout in 1981. He had very little appreciation for that or understanding of it. And he did not understand how his deadline would, in fact, be counterproductive if he really wanted to get those folks back to work. Many of those strikers, I should say, agreed in principle with Ronald Reagan, they didn't want to strike. But they felt there was no other way to get the governments attention.
REHMWhat were the working conditions they were striking against?
MCCARTINWell, air traffic control is a uniquely stressful profession. Air traffic controllers handle the lives of people, just as surely as pilots do. But unlike pilots, they aren't seen and aren't recognized. When you land somewhere and you get off the plane, the pilot appears at the door of the cockpit and you can say "Thank you." And you can express your appreciation.
MCCARTINThe air traffic controllers labor, unseen. In radar rooms, far from airports, and in the -- behind the tented glass of control towers. They have just as much responsibility for safety as pilots do, they have just as much stress but in those days, they felt, they had very little recognition for all of that. And that was a main factor in motivating their strike.
REHMNow, I hate to remind you of this...
REHM...but there have been some recent incidents where air traffic controllers have been found sound asleep. So that perhaps, as you outline their work schedule, at the time, Ronald Reagan fired the union, broke up the union, conditions have changed, more than a little bit.
MCCARTINThey have changed and then I would say they've improved. But some of the problems that linger from 1981, in fact, helped to explain some of those recent incidents. There's been a wave of early -- or wave retirements, in recent years, of controllers who were hired to replace the strikers in 1981. Controllers have been stretched thin, the number of senior controllers, who are there to mentor the new -- incoming controllers, it's a smaller proportion then used to be.
MCCARTINThe stresses still remain. It's a job that requires people to take some time away from position and rest to be able to keep alert. Now, there've been some unfortunate cases where people have abused that. I think, the union, now, which is called The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, NATCA, has worked with the FAA to try to rectify that problem.
REHMTell me about conditions at the time. What was it like for the members of PATCO?
MCCARTINConditions -- I would like to go back to talk about the origins of all this in the '60s, and at that time controllers were working mandatory overtime. They were working six days a week, often, well, more than 40 hours, many times not getting breaks away from their radar positions. It was that kind of condition that led to the formation of the union in 1968. Conditions improved marginally between '68 and '81, but there were still some serious problems in the system that controllers wanted to try to rectify.
REHMAnd the enforced overtime meant that, at times, you know, even beyond the six days a week, some were forced to work very long hours.
MCCARTINThat's right. Often you didn't know when your supervisor would need you to stay late, you'd learn that day or you'd be called in from work while you were home. The other thing about controllers and their work patterns, and this helps to explain the problem of sleeping, is that they tend to rotate through a day shift, then an evening shift and then a midnight shift over the period of about five or six weeks.
MCCARTINAnd so that rotation throws off their sleep schedule and makes it, often, pretty hard for the...
REHMNow is that the way it is right now or is that the way it was back then?
MCCARTINThat's the way it was then, but some parts of this job haven't changed because the nature of the job remains the same. You need to staff these facilities 24 hours. And so it does require people to sometimes observe odd schedules.
REHMTake us back to 1935, Joseph McCartin, when federal workers actually gained the right to unionize.
MCCARTINWell, actually, Diane, it wasn't 1935. Many people do assume that. In 1935, just about every private sector worker, who is an industrial worker not an agricultural or domestic or government worker, got the right to organize as a result of the Wagner Act. But government workers were actually left out. They were left out until the late '50s and the 1960s.
MCCARTINAnd it was President John F. Kennedy, in 1962 and his executive order 10988 that, for the first time, opened up the possibility for bargaining in the federal sector, although as I argue in the book, that order was deeply flawed and it didn't work, it didn't give what it promised. That is, it promised some level of bargaining but it didn't offer the means through which to bring that about. And that was part of the frustration that began to build in the '60s.
MCCARTINSo government workers didn't have rights, really, before the '60s. They started to get them then but the air traffic controllers, who were facing very difficult conditions, really thought that couldn't happen fast enough.
REHMSo in fact, the postal workers were operating under totally different rules from, say, PATCO?
MCCARTINRight up until 1970, postal workers, air traffic controllers and others, operated under the same basic umbrella of the law. But in 1970, about 300,000 postal workers staged a wild cat strike, that is a strike that wasn't approved by their union leaders, protesting some of their conditions and what they felt was their low pay.
MCCARTINThat strike instigated reform that led to the creation of the U.S. Postal service where the postal workers were actually broken out of the federal government and set up in a separate self-funding agency. Now, they achieved, at that time in 1970 and '71, the right to bargain over their pay. But other federal workers didn't get that right, including PATCO. And, in fact, it was the postal workers example in 1970 and '71 that really was in PATCO's mind in the 1970s. They wanted to achieve what the postal workers had won.
REHMAnd why couldn't they?
MCCARTINWell, that's the question that they persistently asked and they never felt that they got the proper answer to it. Neither democratic nor republican administrations were very anxious to extend bargaining rights of that sort to their workers. I think one of the things that happened was, as the economy began to run into trouble in the mid 1970s, at the time that Jimmy Carter was in the White House and when they conceivably could've gotten reform, economic conditions persuaded Carter to oppose that idea.
REHM"Collision Course" is the name of Joseph McCartin's new book. We'll be right back.
REHMIn his new book "Collision Course" Joseph McCartin of Georgetown University takes us back to Ronald Reagan, the air traffic controllers and the strike that changed America. Do join us, 800-433-8850. You talk about Jack Maher...
REHM...and Mike Rock. Who were they, Joe?
MCCARTINThey were the two men who founded PATCO. And the event that launched them on this quest was a terrible tragedy which speaks to the kind of conditions that they were trying to deal with. On December 16, 1960 Jack Maher and Mike Rock, then recently out of the military and not long into their FAA jobs, were working in hanger 11 at Idlewild Airport. And it was a big hanger within which there were many radar screens where controllers monitored and directed traffic around the New York metropolitan area.
MCCARTINThat was a very bad weather day. And on that day, two planes came together -- crashed together in a midair collision over Staten Island, a DC8 from Chicago and a Super Constellation from Ohio. One hundred and thirty-four people were killed...
MCCARTIN...in that horrific event. To that point in American history, it was the worst air disaster ever. It galvanized the controllers. To them, it demonstrated what they'd been privately complaining about for a couple of years, that is that their equipment was outdated. They were often working with radar screens that came off of decommissioned battle ships. They were understaffed.
MCCARTINAnd, you know, although controller error was not, you know, the cause of this strike, it was later found that one of the pilots had violated the instructions he'd been given, had the radar screens been working better and procedures been better, this -- the event might've been avoided.
MCCARTINJack Maher especially was deeply affected by this because he directed one of those planes before handing it off to another controller. He was subpoenaed and testified in the investigation that followed. And he was so offended by how the event was handled. You know, he felt that the government covered up the problems within air traffic control, that they had no interest in exposing those to the public. And he said, we've got to change this.
MCCARTINAnd so it was really that event that got them started on the organizing effort that took them really eight years to come to fruition before they could actually form PATCO.
REHMI wonder whether they faced challenges from their own employers...
MCCARTINThey did. The FAA -- as soon as they began to try to organize and to bring attention to these issues the FAA made clear in no uncertain terms that they did not appreciate that. They did not believe it was the job of everyday controllers like Rock and Maher to be involved in these kinds of things and basically told them to stop.
MCCARTINAnd they had great difficulty finding, you know, people who would stand with them. And that led them to one of the more interesting and strange twists of this story. In the end they felt like they needed a very prominent public figure to come in and help them get this thing off the ground who could speak for them.
MCCARTINThey ended up approaching the attorney F. Lee Bailey and persuading him as a great trial lawyer, also an amateur pilot, to help them. Bailey heard their story and he was also appalled by what they told him and he said, I'll help you. And he helped them found the organization.
REHMInteresting. We have an e-mail from Mark in Miami who says, "I'm a management, labor and employment lawyer. Reagan merely followed the law saying you cannot strike. It's nothing extraordinary," says Mark.
MCCARTINHe did follow the law. There's nothing untrue about that. But it was extraordinary. No other president had done this. There had been 39 work stoppages in the federal government between 1962 and 1981. Now granted none of them were as large as this one but one of them had actually been undertaken by air traffic controllers. When Richard Nixon was president in 1970 after they had formed PATCO and found that they weren't getting anywhere with the FAA they staged a sick-out. It was basically a strike where controllers for three weeks called in sick, about 3,000 of them.
MCCARTINNow Richard Nixon could've done what Ronald Reagan did and fire them all but he didn't. In fact, he tried to fire only a very few, fewer than a hundred of the leaders of that sick-out. But in the end he even ended up pardoning those and allowing them to be rehired or opening the door to their rehiring. So no one ended up being fired, although they'd basically done the same thing in 1970.
MCCARTINYes, Reagan followed the law but he also did this in a way no other president did. And by doing it that way set a dramatic precedent.
REHMYou know, it's fascinating. Someone sent in a message on Facebook. It was Walter who said, "Unions are always under attack while only 6 percent of private sector unions' workers are unionized."
MCCARTINWell, Walter has a good point. I mean, if you listen to some of labor's critics these days, they keep talking about big labor. But labor's not so big as it used to be.
REHMAnd Mike has written that -- Michael Moore has written that this is the day the middle class and the American dream died.
MCCARTINYou know, there's a little bit of hyperbole in that, but there's also a bit of truth in it. As I argue in the book, this particular event had an enormous impact in undermining workers' ability to exercise collective action. Once Ronald Reagan established the precedent for breaking a strike on this magnitude it was imitated in the private sector. To the point where strikes, which had been commonplace as a method of workers to get their demands met before 1981, about 270 major strikes a year on average in that period, have almost disappeared from the American industrial landscape in recent years. There were only 13 major strikes in 2009, for example, down from 270 some.
MCCARTINSo as workers have lost the ability to win games by using collective action, clearly this has opened the door to management and employers putting more healthcare costs onto their shoulders, keeping down wages and other things.
REHMAnd yet Barbara writes, "Had Reagan not confronted the traffic controllers there would've been a much larger outcry. This was hardly the day the middle class American dream died. There are plenty of reason for that, greed being one."
MCCARTINWell, she also has a point, too. No single event can explain everything although I think this was kind of a catalytic event. However, of course, Ronald Reagan did have to act in some way. And actually I think even a Democratic president would have refused to negotiate with air traffic controllers who were engaged in an illegal strike.
MCCARTINLanghorne Bond who was Jimmy Carter's FAA Administrator had actually drawn up the plan to be able to defeat a strike. And he wanted to stay on in that post so that he could defeat a strike if one happened. And he believed that Carter would not negotiate in the face of a strike.
REHMBut was it Johnson's head of the FAA who actually agreed to meet with the union, which was unprecedented?
MCCARTINThat is right. As PATCO was built against great odds in the 1960's and finally formed in a convention in Chicago in January -- or in New York actually in January, 1968 the union embarked on its first effort to pressure the FAA by slowing down air traffic in order to force that meeting.
MCCARTINAnd so it was Lyndon Johnson's director of the FAA, "Bozo" McKee, who met with representatives of the air traffic controllers in 1968. And for the first time, controllers found that only by pressuring the government could they sit down with the top people in their agency and get them to listen.
REHMSo what was PATCO asking for, as Ronald Reagan saw it? And what was he willing to give them?
MCCARTINWell, both of those questions are interesting. PATCO made a severe miscalculation in trying to draw up its demands for 1981 because it made as its central demand the idea that air traffic controllers ought to get a $10,000 raise across the board, every controller. Now, that was at a time when the average salary was $32,000 so it was a hugely unrealistic demand. The union never really felt that they would get that, but they wanted to make a point.
REHMHave a negotiating place.
MCCARTINThat's exactly right. And Reagan people never thought that they would give anything near that either. But what the Reagan negotiators did, which I think has been forgotten, is that they actually went pretty far toward trying to address the controllers by offering for the first time to raise their salaries. Now no previous administration had ever done that in a negotiation. As I said, Federal workers didn't really have that right. But what they offered was too small, the union felt. And actually they misread Reagan. They felt that his offer of a precedent-setting salary increase was an indication that if they pushed him a little more they could get more from him.
REHMWhat else was PATCO asking for that they thought they could get and that perhaps Reagan might have agreed to?
MCCARTINThey wanted a shorter work week. That was a key demand. And a number of other things, relief from the stresses of their jobs.
REHMHow could they have gotten that kind of relief from the stress of the job?
MCCARTINThey felt if their work weeks were reduced that this would help mitigate that stress. Actually what the Reagan people did offer was a paid lunch break for the first time and that was a significant step. But again the union misread Reagan.
MCCARTINAnd actually, part of that goes back to another interesting part of this story. And that is that PATCO actually endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980. Many people forget that. It was one of only four unions that did endorse Reagan.
REHMAnd William writes to us and says, "The crying shame is that union members voted for Reagan even though if they had paid attention to his time as governor and what he said on the campaign trail, they would have realized he was anti-union. So they slit their own throats." Is that a fair statement?
MCCARTINWell, I think it's a little exaggerated. There's some truth in it, but I think it's overstated. I think one thing about Ronald Reagan as governor is that you could make two different kind of cases. Was he anti-labor? If you looked at his treatment of Caesar Chavez and the farm workers, you would say yes, he was. He did not help them.
MCCARTINWas he anti-labor? If you looked at his treatment of public workers in California, I'm not sure you could say that. He actually signed a bill in 1968 that brought collective bargaining to local workers within California, the Meyers Milias Brown Act.
REHMInteresting. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to San Antonio, Texas. Good morning, Earl.
EARLHey, good morning. I'm one of the 12,000 brothers and sisters that walked on August 3 and we just celebrated our 30th anniversary. Sir, I want you to know that I preordered your book. I'm going to critique it for you.
EARLBut it was an interesting time in our life. I'm very proud of what we stood for. I'm very proud of our actions and the way we carried ourselves. And I gotta tell you that the air traffic controller today has gained tremendously from our strike. Salaries are over $100,000 when they reach the full performance level. They still have some of the work issues, as far as you were mentioning about the rotating shifts and whatnot, which is very difficult on you.
EARLBut one of the things that they -- that the strike brought along was delaying air traffic because of -- they didn't have enough controllers to handle the flights after the strike. And they came up with these plans such as ground delay programs and ground stops, things that we didn't have when we were working traffic. We just dealt with it as it came and did our jobs the best we could.
MCCARTINI think Earl is right. And one point that I would touch on and underline is the irony in the fact that these 11,000 some strikers who were fired did clearly help improve things for those who now work in air traffic control. Their salaries and other things about the job have been dramatically improved, I would say, compared to what it was before 1981. A lot of that has to do with what those strikers did.
REHMAll right. To Steven in Delray, Fla. Good morning. You're on the air. I guess you're not. To Dover, N.H. Good morning, Michael.
MICHAELGood morning, Diane. And I have to say this is the first time that I've listened to your program. It's definitely very enlightening and very intellectual. I do appreciate your program.
MICHAELI have a fundamental question for your guest and it's a question -- I am a conservative, but I do have an open mind and so my question is a little bit more fundamental on collective bargaining. FDR basically pondered out loud how collective bargaining could not be corrupted by the political process if you give public workers collective bargaining rights.
MICHAELOne of the things that is kind of a question for me, and I'm sure leaders such as FDR was, you know, when you're dealing with taxpayer money and the parties around the negotiating table are those of workers and those of elected officials, how that process actually is a good thing for people who are actually paying the bills. So if your guest can address that, that would be great.
REHMSure. Thanks for calling.
MCCARTINWell, Michael has a really good and important question. And this is a question people are debating today. My argument is that collective bargaining in government works. It's worked pretty effectively over more than half a century in the places where it's been.
MCCARTINWe shouldn't immediately assume that it becomes a corrupt system where unions support politicians who end up paying them back by improving their conditions and wages, et cetera at the public's expense.
MCCARTINPoliticians still have to defend whatever they do to the public.
REHM...that is Rush Limbaugh's argument...
MCCARTINThat's exactly right.
REHM...that public unions simply are forced to take their dues and give them back to elected officials.
MCCARTINThat is the argument, but I think it's inaccurate. Say in the federal government, nobody is required to pay the union anything to be represented by the union.
REHMJoseph McCartin. His new book is titled "Collision Course." We'll take a short break and be right back.
REHMAnd we'll go right back to the phones to (word?), Ky. and Lucinda. Good morning, you're on the air.
LUCINDAGood morning, Diane. Thank you so much for having Joseph McCartin on this subject. My ex-husband was an air traffic controller until 1979 when he took a disability and retired. They knew there was a problem with the negotiations coming up. They'd had conventions. They'd discussed this. Sir, I'd like to ask you, do you have, two things, a copy of the letter that he, President Reagan, sent to the PATCO members asking for his vote and promising that he would help them during their negotiation in the next contract talks?
LUCINDANumber two, do you have a copy of the FAA whitewash -- it was a soft back pamphlet. I had it at one time. It's about a half an inch thick, where the FAA, the government, published a whitewash of the steps that led up to the strike and why they handled it that way. Number three, they were never given -- they were never given arbitration. They never sent in top echelon negotiators to the PATCO controllers. I went to one of their meetings and that was one of the major complaints is they had all these...
MCCARTINLucinda had some good questions. Yes, I have read and talk about in my book the October 20, 1980 letter from Ronald Reagan to PATCO which sealed the endorsement that the union subsequently made of Reagan's candidacy three days later. The letter doesn't specifically say what it will for PATCO, but it's filled with statements that indicate support from Reagan for PATCO's concerns. There were negotiations that preceded that letter and which the union that it felt it was being promised significant things from the Reagan administration. They obviously misread any indications that they read that way though because they thought that they were being promised more than actually the Reagan people were prepared to give them.
MCCARTINBut that letter was widely circulated among controllers prior to the strike. And it helped to fuel the feeling among them that, hey, we were promised something by this president. What they've offered at the bargaining table is pretty small and it doesn't really address our fundamental concerns. And that's partly why they decided we're gonna walk out.
REHMWhat about the FAA pamphlet?
MCCARTINI've read reports by the FAA. I'm not sure which one Lucinda is referring to. There were many studies afterward, including one actually commissioned by Drew Lewis, Secretary of Transportation under Reagan, which reviewed the circumstances leading to the strike, and actually came out quite critically against the FAA. That report really faulted FAA management style for increasing a sense of alienation and conflict in the workplace.
REHMAnd what about arbitration?
MCCARTINArbitration wasn't really a possibility in this conflict for a simple reason. And that is what was being talked about and what the union wanted Reagan to do was outside the scope of what the law should've allowed. That is the law didn't allow air traffic controllers to be able to bargain over their salaries. The union wanted to do that. Reagan was offering to do it. You couldn't really bring an arbitrator...
REHMOh, I see. I see.
MCCARTIN...into that situation because there was no provision in the law for it.
REHMLucinda, I'm glad you called. Thank you. To Indianapolis and Chester, good morning, you're on the air.
CHESTERGood morning, Diane. I'd just like to say I love your program. You're the greatest.
CHESTERI don't wanna bore you with that. But I was a controller for 11 years and there were some incidents, I think, that got the people to go on strike. The controllers were naïve when it came to labor and as far as the labor unions were. One of them was the letter promise that they got that the administration would support them. And at the time, the raises that we should've gotten should've been based on the consumer price index and we were like 26 percent below where we should've been earning. And that was one of the things that the administration said they would correct in, you know, the pre-election promises. And then after, they said, well, that was a campaign promise. You know, you wouldn't expect us to follow through with that.
CHESTERBut what really got some of these people, a lot of these controllers were veterans, many of were Vietnam veterans who had sacrificed a lot. I mean, they were dedicated federal employees, but to have the government make promises like that or a political party and then turn around and stick it to them, it made it a little easier to energize the base and get them worked up over it. And there's enough evidence maybe behind that to see that it was intended to break a union. You couldn't do it in private.
CHESTERJ. Lynn Helms who was the FAA administrator, if you go back through his resume and look at the stuff that he -- how he got into politics, and by the way he was indicted for lying to Congress, that was one of the reasons they got some people -- that was after the fact, but one of the reasons they got the controllers fired up was the promises that they didn't make. I still have a copy of that letter.
REHMChester, it's really interesting to hear that firsthand experience that on the same view.
MCCARTINAbsolutely. And like Chester, many of the fired strikers that I've met over the years carry a copy of that letter in their wallet folded up.
REHMTell me about what happened in Wisconsin. What's going there?
MCCARTINRight. Well, I think it's one of the ways in which the PATCO strike continues to resonate and ramify through our politics. Back in January, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin called his staff together. And he had a dinner with them just prior to going to the legislature with a bill in which he was going to call for rolling back elective bargaining rights for Wisconsin workers. He sat the staff down. He pulled out a picture of Ronald Reagan. This is by his own account. He said, folks, you know, 30 years ago Ronald Reagan had a history changing confrontation with PATCO and now it's our time to seize history. And so he went to the Wisconsin legislature and ultimately after a long struggle that took weeks, as we all know, he...
REHMAnd where some legislators left town.
MCCARTINThat's right. Some left town and hid in Illinois for a little time, but Walker was able to get his bill enacted. Now, that's generated lots of fights for recalls for the legislators on either side of that and for Walker himself and his is yet to be decided. But I think what's significant about it is that what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin is really far beyond what Ronald Reagan ever did and it shows how radical anti-unionism has become in the past 30 years. Ronald Reagan was not an opponent of public sector collective bargaining per se.
MCCARTINAs I said, as governor, he extended it in California. He also offered PATCO some money to raise their salaries in 1981 when no other president did that. So Reagan never campaigned against collective bargaining the way Scott Walker is doing. And yet now latter day Reagan followers wanna claim Ronald Reagan as the first and greatest anti-unionist.
REHMInteresting. Here's a posting on Facebook from Kenneth who started his 30-year career with the National Labor Relations Board in '79. He says, "Although my agency does not deal with public employees, I recall the PATCO strike, its lasting effects in the private sector. One reason I am against SB 5 in Ohio, which would restrict or eliminate collective bargaining rights for Ohio's public employees," He says, "what happens in the public sector often rolls down to the private sector."
MCCARTINOh, absolutely. And you could say that Kenneth's last statement is almost a motto for my book. And what I show in this book, that is what happened to government workers in 1981 had a huge impact in the private sector. Arguably it h ad a much bigger impact in the private sector than it did in the public sector. As the previous caller noted, you know, controllers today are unionized. They want things as a result of that 1981 strike. But in the private sector, once Reagan broke PATCO, there was a wave of strike breaking that happened among private sector workers that, again, has basically eliminated the strike as a viable tool for unions today.
REHMBut isn't that the major tool that unions have always had at their disposal and how strong can they be without that ability?
MCCARTINIt's an important point. Nobody wants to be a champion of strikes. But actually strikes have served a purpose. When management is unwilling to listen and there's no other way...
MCCARTINAnd unreasonable and there's no other way to get their attention, then withholding of labor is really labor's last great resort. Now, once you remove that possibility from unions, then they increasingly have to do what you've seen in recent years. They have to turn to politics as a way of protecting and advancing their interests. And that has fed a cycle which as further polarized our politics today.
REHMAll right. To Bedford, Texas. Good morning, Caroline.
CAROLINEGood morning, Diane. Back during the PATCO strike I was a very young and somewhat naïve union rep. I was a flight attendant at the time. I still am. And I'm still involved in my union. I remember attending a PATCO rally right outside of the airport property. And all of the airport unions, pilots unions, flight attendant, mechanics, baggage handlers and quite a few others there in Los Angeles were at the rally talking about, ain't it awful, isn't it just dreadful, wringing their hands. And we marched around the airport property in support of PATCO. My question to you is had those unions honored that PATCO picket line for just 24 hours, would the recent history of American Labor Union be substantially different?
MCCARTINIt's a great question that Caroline has. It's a question that labor activists continue to ask 30 years later. The labor movement faced a very difficult situation. Ronald Reagan was a popular president. The strike was illegal. Leaders of the labor movement like Lane Kirkland did not believe that they could rally, even a majority of union members, into actions like this. They thought it might divide their unions. They were afraid to try to do that, especially when the two unions that were closest to the air transport system at the time, the pilots union and the machinist union, didn't take leadership and say we're going to go on strike or to honor these picket lines. And so everybody waited for somebody else to do something and nothing really happened.
REHMI thank you for your call, Caroline.
CAROLINEThank you so much for all you do for us, Diane.
REHMThank you. And to Keith in Fairport, N.Y. Good morning.
KEITHGood morning, Diane. I'm very interested in this discussion that you've had this morning. And I've thought for a very long time that what happened to the private sector unions after the air traffic controller strike, once Reagan was able to fire those people and get away with it, as soon as he fired those folks, the private sector unions should have brought the country to a total halt. Teamsters, iron workers, dock workers, you name it, they should've all gone on strike in support of this and recognized it for what it really was. This was union breaking at its angst degree.
KEITHAnd Ronald Reagan read his popularity correctly and said, you know what, I'm willing to take you right to the mat with this. So I blame poor union leadership at the national level that was not able to pull the brothers and sisters together and actually do anything about it.
REHMDo you agree with that, Joe?
MCCARTINWell, Keith has a point. I'm not sure I would lay it though to simply bad leadership. The American workforce is very diverse and has lots of different interests. It's also divided in lots of ways, religiously, regionally, racially. And to coerce workers around the cause of other workers in the way that would've been necessary in 1981 was a really steep challenge.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Richmond, Va. Good morning, Roger.
ROGERYes, thank you. I'm an employee of UPS and of course was involved in one of the most successful recent strikes in our nation's history. And at that time, we had the sentiment of the public was behind us. I'm afraid that may not be the case in the future. And I was wondering what you might suggest, since strikes are obviously not viable and politics, we pay millions of dollars and don't get the representation. Other than pool room language at public rallies and tired slogans of I've got the hammer, would you suggest going to the legislature and telling them that lack of health benefits is actually being paid by the state taxpayer?
MCCARTINI think that's right. And I think in your statement, Roger, you kind of helped point the way forward. Because what we have to do I think is begin to educate people about the problems of the American worker and about the problems that we can't continue to ignore. Rising health costs being offloaded onto workers' backs, it's bad not just for those workers, it's bad for the whole economy.
REHMAnd finally to Ocean City, Md. Gene, very quick point, please.
GENEVery quick because I was a bit involved. I was involved in the training of the air traffic controllers when they prepared for this strike and I'm sure your author realizes that they were pretty confident because of their relationship with the president at the time. They thought it would be a short strike and they were very confident. I helped them with skill building on dealing with the media. I had nothing to do with policy. And the other item I'm not sure has been mentioned by you, but the leadership of the AFL-CIO didn't know about the actual strike except through the news. The executive committee was meeting in Chicago and the air traffic controllers went out on strike so that the entire federation really had to get behind them as a second thought.
MCCARTINWell, Gene's right. The AFL-CIO wasn't really involved in the planning of this strike. It wasn't really consulted. AFL-CIO leaders were meeting on the morning that the strike began as Gene points out in Chicago. It was a really dramatic scene that I recount in the book because they were kind of in a quandary. What do we do? Here's the president laying a 48 hour ultimatum on workers. We know this strike is not gonna be a popular strike. What do we do?
REHMAnd finally John in Geneseo, N.Y. writes, "The irony of renaming National as the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport." Thank you so much for joining us. Joseph McCartin is the author of the new book. It's titled "Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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