The Consequences of Reagan Breaking the ’81 Air Traffic Controllers Strike (2/2)
Prof. Joseph McCartin and former PATCO spokesperson Elliot Simons explain why other organized labor didn’t strike in solidarity with PATCO workers
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieuxin Baltimore. And welcome to part two of our conversation about the anniversary of then president Ronald Reagan’s firing 11,000 air traffic controllers.
Now joining us to pick up this discussion 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 joining us by telephone is Elliot Simons. He was the former media spokesperson for PATCO local and was one of the many strikers who lost their jobs after the strike.
Thank you both for joining us again.
JOSEPH MCCARTIN, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: So, Joseph, we were talking about just the impact of Ronald Reagan’s actions a little bit in our first part of the interview. So I want to pick it up and ask you about the responses of other labor organizations at the time to this firing.
MCCARTIN: Sure. Well, on the morning that the strike took place, which was August 3, 1981, it turned out that the AFL-CIO was hosting its annual meeting of its executive council in Chicago. So that meant that all of the presidents of the major unions of the AFL were sitting together at a conference table that morning, as Elliot Simons and his colleagues were walking out and forming picket lines outside of the nation’s airports. When those union presidents heard that the strike and begun, and moreover when they heard that Ronald Reagan had issued a 48 hour ultimatum, they were deeply alarmed. And they were, also, some of them, miffed and angry, because they felt that PATCO couldn’t possibly win this strike and that by walking out, all of the labor movement was sort of out on a limb. And they either had to support PATCO or see it go down. But they didn’t know how to support the PATCO strike. Some people in the room, William Winpisinger, the head of the International Association of Machinists, raised the possibility that there ought to be sympathy strikes by other unions. But most union presidents that were present at that time said that that would not go over with their members and that if they tried to call such strikes and they didn’t materialize, it would show the whole labor movement to be a paper tiger. So the labor movement basically was paralyzed in its response to Reagan. It came out and made public statements against what Reagan’s response to this walkout was, but it had trouble forming any consensus to do much more than that. And so, sadly, the union movement sort of observed over the next several days as this fateful encounter took place and those workers were fired. It was a huge unionbusting episode, and the labor movement felt powerless at the time to do much about it.
DESVARIEUX: Joseph, didn’t the AFL-CIO also at the time send out letters to its affiliates essentially discouraging them to stand with PATCO workers at the time of the strike?
MCCARTIN: The AFL-CIO itself did not do that, but some of its unions did. Some of the union presidents were in fact very anti-PATCO. And one of the most important was the president of the Air Line Pilots Association. And that president absolutely not only disapproved of PATCO strike but felt that that strike would cost airline pilots their jobs. Many of them were being laid off because of the tremendous cutbacks in flights that were allowed by the FAA. And so J. J. O’Donnell was his name–came out with public statements quite critical of PATCO and urging pilots to continue to fly, telling the public that the skies were safe. And that really had a devastating impact on the air traffic controllers.
DESVARIEUX: Elliot, I want to bring you back into the conversation, because you were a member of PATCO. There’s some criticism, though, that there was a sort of lack of militancy or class politics among unions at the time, which gave Reagan enough confidence to essentially fire so many workers without fearing much retaliation from labor. What’s your response to that?
ELLIOT SIMONS, FMR. MEDIA SPOKESPERSON, PATCO LOCAL: My response is slightly different. PATCO at the time, myself included, were so arrogant that we didn’t think we needed the help. So there was really not much preplanning that went on. We felt we were going to shut the air traffic system down. We didn’t think they could proceed without us. And when it finally happened and all of a sudden it was working, we were really caught short.
PORTER: I would just add to what Elliot has just said and confirm that. And from my research and talking to PATCO leaders, as well as leaders of other unions at the time, a lot of those other union leaders were caught by surprise by this strike. They didn’t really understand what was happening. And PATCO did believe that they would be able to win it on their own. They didn’t do too much beforehand to build a kind of broad solidarity around their demands. And that proved to be fatal.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Joseph, I also want to ask you about the long-term impact of the strike on unions and the labor movement as a whole. Just some statistics. I mean, everyone knows that union membership in unions has been dwindling for some time, but back in ’83, 20 percent of the American workforce was in a union. Today it’s at about 11 percent. Did Reagan’s action really embolden employers to crush labor essentially?
MCCARTIN: It absolutely did. And even though this strike involved fewer than 12,000 federal workers of a very specialized variety, it had an impact well beyond the air traffic control towers of the country, well beyond the federal workforce, and deeply into the private-sector workforce. When Ronald Reagan replaced the air traffic controllers 1981, it was still not common for American employers in the private sector to deal with strikes by trying to break them and by permanently replacing workers who’d gone out on strike. But, in fact, once Reagan had sort of successfully broken PATCO and retained his popularity in the aftermath of that–and that was crucial. Employers saw that Reagan was able to do this and in effect get away with it. Many private-sector employers took a similarly hard line when workers went out on strike in the private sector.
Now, federal workers by law did not have a right to strike, and by law, Reagan had the right to fire them as he did. Workers in the private sector, at least by law, were supposed to have the right to strike, but in strike after strike in the 1980s at places like Phelps Dodge, the copper mine company in Arizona, at Hormel, the meatpackers plant up in Austin, Minnesota, and at many other places around the country, when private-sector workers went out on strike, their employer simply shut down the negotiations and hired replacements and either broke the unions or forced the unions to come back in a terribly weakened state. So Reagan’s action had a huge impact.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And that huge impact, Elliot, I mean, it’s being felt today. What sort of advice would you give unions today? What lessons have you learned that you would pass on to them in termsr of lessons that you’ve learned from your strike?
SIMONS: Things are so different today, I’m not sure that I could give really give some advice. But certainly the union that replaced PATCO learned the lesson, and they’re doing it very well. That’s the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, or NATCA. And, in fact, I joke with people and I say the PATCO strike was the most successful strike in history. NATCA got everything we asked for and more.
MCCARTIN: That’s true. And I will say that the Reagan administration was prepared to meet many of PATCO’s demands. Ultimately they did. They just weren’t going to do it in that strike. But air traffic controllers who followed Elliot and his colleagues ended up working, and under much better conditions than Elliot and his colleagues have done. And their strike was instrumental in bringing bad about.
SIMONS: The other real key part that we didn’t understand back then was the force of public opinion back then. And, again, we thought that we could shut things down and public opinion didn’t matter. So we were so wrong. It was a political lesson that we were learning the hard way. And, again, if I was going to advise any group of people that were trying to organize, it’s to understand the politics, understand what’s happening locally and nationally before they take any action.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Elliot Simons, as well as professor Joseph McCartin, thank you both for joining us.
MCCARTIN: Thank you, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.