The Consequences of Reagan Breaking the ’81 Air Traffic Controllers Strike (1/2)
Prof. Joseph McCartin and former PATCO spokesperson Elliot Simons discuss the anniversary of the firing of 11,000 air traffic controllers and why it matters today
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Back in 1981, for those of you who remember, August 5 was the day that then-president Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. The air traffic controllers were fired two days after their union, PATCO, declared a strike. They were demanding a pay raise, a shorter workweek, and better working conditions. It was a move that some historians say laid the groundwork for today’s assault on labor.
Now joining us to get into these issues are our two guests. Joseph McCartin is a professor of history and the director of the Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. He’s also the author of the book Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America.
And also joining us by telephone is Elliot Simons. He was the former media spokesperson for PATCO local [sic] and was one of the many strikers who lost their jobs after the strike.
Thank you both for joining us.
Joseph, let’s start off with you. Give us some context here. What was the state of the labor movement at the time? What kind of political forces were there–in American society was labor? Were they a prominent power?
JOSEPH MCCARTIN, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Labor was a prominent power in 1981. When the air traffic controllers went out on strike 33 years ago yesterday, on August 3, 1981, the labor movement was still seen as a central force in American government and politics. Both parties, Republican and Democrat, saw labor that way.
It was an important moment in American history, though, because Ronald Reagan was in the first months, really, still, of his presidency. He’d been inaugurated in January, 1981. And he was in the middle of rolling out what we call the Reagan revolution. And Reagan wanted to really turn back the clock, you might say, to an approach to American government and politics that was pre-New Deal. And part of that meant reorganizing the relationship between government and the labor movement.
The PATCO strike happened at this important turning point in American history, and it left a very profound legacy, because, as you say, Ronald Reagan first threatened those strikers to return to work within 48 hours of their walkout, and when they did not, he fired them. Not only did he fire them; he permanently replaced them. And with that action, he sent a powerful message that many employers even in the private sector acted upon after that, and it was a period of getting tough with the union movement that a really marked a profoundly important turning point.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. I want to get a better sense of PATCO. Elliot, you were the media spokesperson for the local PATCO union in Baltimore at the time. Can you just give us a brief history? Why was it formed? And why did they decide to go on strike in ’81?
ELLIOT SIMONS, FMR. MEDIA SPOKESPERSON, PATCO LOCAL: Dr. McCartin really gives a very good history of PATCO and why it started. And, of course, it started with a disaster, and that was the midair collision over New York City in 1960. And it became evident to those controllers back then that some improvements had to be made, particularly in the equipment and some of the working relationships. And there were many, many issues, and it was a difficult time to make those first strides. And I’ll let Dr. McCartin to explain that part of it again. He does so beautifully in the book.
But when I became a controller in ’75, a lot of the huge issues that really brought about the animosity [inaud.] Federal Aviation Administration [inaud.] resolved. It had been resolved to the point where I didn’t feel a real need to execute the strike. There were still some real outstanding issues. And the one that comes to mind more than anything: the FAA’s lack of defense of controllers that got involved [inaud.] certain incidents, accidents, such that the controllers had to get their own attorneys and really defend themselves out of their own pocket.
There was also the pay disparity. We certainly couldn’t complain at the time of being underpaid. We certainly noticed the difference between what we were making and what airline pilots were making. So you had this festering dispute that had been going on.
And then you get people like me that were really busy training. I mean, I really didn’t have that much time to really think about things. But you come into a union that’s well established, it doesn’t matter where it is, any one of the major airports or control centers in the country, and a lot of these feelings had been festering for a long, long time. So I came in just trying to learn the job, trying to get checked out, trying to get certified, and all of a sudden being faced with this tremendous decision.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And this tremendous decision that Ronald Reagan made at the end of the day, it kind of speaks to something that I think a lot of people don’t know about is that PATCO actually supported his candidacy, as well as Republicans candidate Nixon at the time.
Let’s actually first, though, roll a clip about what he did in terms of standing up to the unions and what he had to say about the strike at the time.
RONALD REAGAN, U.S. PRESIDENT: They are in violation of the law, and if they do not to report to work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.
DESVARIEUX: So we just heard Ronald Reagan say that they will be terminated. Joseph, can you break down for us why did PATCO even support Reagan’s candidacy?
MCCARTIN: Well, it’s a long story in a way. I’ll quickly summarize it. But first let me go to something Elliot said. This union had been attempted to be formed as early as 1960. It wasn’t actually formed until 1968. Shortly after that, Richard Nixon was elected. And in the first years of PATCO trying to establish itself as a federal union, it dealt with a Republican president, Nixon. And what it found is that the Nixon administration in the early 1970s was prepared to make deals with unions in order to improve its standing, looking forward to running for reelection in 1972, and PATCO was able to get some concessions from Nixon that led PATCO leaders to endorse Nixon in 1972. They actually got their first contract with the federal government under that Republican president.
So when Ronald Reagan ran in 1980, PATCO already had a history of being able to negotiate with presidents from both parties. Reagan, of course, opposed the incumbent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. And Elliot came to work and worked his first years as an air traffic controller during the Carter administration. Carter was not be loved by air traffic controllers, and his FAA was a very, very tough negotiator with PATCO. It did not concede a lot of the major issues that Elliot just brought up. And so PATCO basically went to both candidates and both parties and said, who’s going to help us the most? And actually Reagan reached out to PATCO. He wanted a few unions to endorse his candidacy. He saw the air traffic controllers as a union that he could work with. Most controllers were military veterans. Many of them were socially conservative. And he felt if any union could be brought into the Republican tent, maybe PATCO would be that union. So he and PATCO basically worked out a deal, and he promised that he would do what he could for the union in their negotiation when it came up in 1981. So it was a deep irony that PATCO did endorse Reagan in 1980. Reagan won. PATCO expected big returns from that endorsement. But when the negotiation actually unfolded in 1981, they were deeply disappointed. They decided to strike. But that was a bridge too far for Reagan. He was not going to tolerate a strike. And that’s what led to that terrible conflict.
DESVARIEUX: So, essentially Reagan broke his promise. Elliot, did you or any of your members there at that PATCO local actually see this coming?
SIMONS: No, I can’t say that we did. What I can say is that there was another major event within PATCO that took place just before the strike, and that was that the president of the union, John Leyden, was replaced by Robert Poli. And when I first heard about a strike plan, John Leyden was the president. And I was a real skeptic. And John Leyden said some words that really turned me. He said that even if we get the 80 percent minimum participation that was required by PATCO’s own guidelines to execute a strike, that we will not strike unless the political and economic climate are correct. And what happened since then was, of course, Ronald Reagan got elected. As Dr. McCartin said, he pulled off his economic and tax program. He was very popular. And then he got shot in early 1981. He was never more popular than he was going into the summer of 1981. And, of course, here PATCO was beating the drum. And this is where I really took a step back and I said, the political and the economic climate are clearly not right. This is not the time to do this.
DESVARIEUX: Okay, gentlemen, we’re going to pause the conversation here, and in part two we’ll discuss the larger impact of Reagan’s actions on the labor movement and why all of this is relevant today. Professor Joseph McCartin, as well is Elliot Simons, thank you both for joining us.
MCCARTIN: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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