The PATCO Syndrome
Coming at the beginning of the Reagan-era conservative ascendancy, the 1981 PATCO strike is often cited as the defining labor struggle of our time.
The air traffic controllers’ strike and its brutal aftermath foreshadowed an era of union-busting and decline that continues to this day. From 23 percent of U.S. workers in unions before the strike, the share of the organized workforce declined to just 12 percent today. Though other factors were at work—globalization, automation, outsourcing—the reinvigorated anti-union stance of employers after the PATCO strike was crucial to labor’s decline.
Yet 30 years later, many details about the union and its strike have been forgotten. That’s why labor historian Joseph A. McCartin’s new book Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America is so timely and important.
PATCO was a fairly young union. In the wake of President Kennedy’s 1962 executive order authorizing federal employees to unionize, the air traffic controllers joined other federal workers in a wave of organizing.
Controllers were dissatisfied with inadequate wages and equipment, excessive overtime, and stress. They were frustrated with the workplace culture of the military-influenced Federal Aviation Administration. But this work environment also forged intense solidarity among the workers, who developed tremendous pride in their training and skills in a crucial job. They organized several associations and unions, finally founding the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1968.
Unionization came with significant restrictions, however, including no right to strike or bargain over wages or benefits.
In the ensuing years, PATCO staged a series of successful work-to-rule slow-downs and sick-outs, winning contract improvements and creatively gaining pay increases despite the ban on wage negotiations. It’s fascinating to see the membership develop confidence and militancy through grassroots, rank-and-file organizing across a far-flung network of airport job sites. By 1976, the union had attained an impressive 85 percent membership among the 16,000 controllers, the highest union density in the federal workforce.
There were developing problems as well. McCartin’s depiction of these years pays little attention to the political culture of PATCO, but what we do learn is not encouraging. Dominated by white men, the union was insensitive to the concerns of black and female controllers, who formed their own caucuses. PATCO seemed overly insular and parochial, forming few alliances with other unions or groups, a position that would leave the union exposed later on. And it relied heavily on political lobbying, leading to a controversial endorsement of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.
McCartin reveals a back story that complicates the common understanding of Reagan as a simple union-buster. Reagan had continued that era’s Republican tradition of courting some union support, and the endorsement discussions led to an understanding in the union that his administration would go easy on PATCO in the upcoming negotiations. This would dramatically affect the union’s decision making.
When the 1981 negotiations began, PATCO was largely controlled by its militant wing, known within the union as the “choirboys.” The union demanded significant wage increases and threatened to strike. Most readers will be surprised to learn that the government returned with what many observers considered an excellent counter-offer, breaking significant new ground by negotiating over wages. PATCO could have declared victory, but such was the members’ job dissatisfaction that the choirboys organized an overwhelming defeat of the tentative contract.
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The rest of the story will be more familiar to most readers. Once the illegal strike began, Reagan declared a 48 hour return-to-work ultimatum. PATCO was initially unfazed, as leaders and members expected the chaos in the flight control system to force a more favorable settlement. But the controllers had grossly miscalculated the ability of the FAA to keep the system running without them, by relying on scabs, supervisors, and borrowed military controllers. Air traffic, while initially crippled, was gradually restored over time.
Reagan ultimately fired more than 11,000 strikers. Some will consider the PATCO strike an example of union courage and militancy; others will see arrogance and overreach.
Where Was the AFL-CIO?
Where was the rest of the labor movement? The AFL-CIO offered rhetorical support but no substantive solidarity. The Machinists and Pilots unions, whose workers were closest on the job to the controllers, offered no support either.
The pilots’ position is most troubling, because McCartin makes clear that they could have refused to fly in a less safe air traffic control system. Such a move undoubtedly would have helped PATCO win, but the pilots viewed the strike as a threat to their jobs and declined to help. The isolation of PATCO was complete.
The repercussions were heartbreaking. Banned from the industry, strikers were forced to search for other work. PATCO lost its certification for violating the no-strike rule. The struggle turned toward getting the strikers’ jobs back, but Reagan was intransigent and refused. McCartin describes how Reagan’s public handling of the strike appeared to strengthen his presidency and enhance his reputation as a tough negotiator. The anti-PATCO stance became a Republican litmus test, and the anti-union plank became a central part of the Republican Party platform.
After this debacle, we would expect unionism to be dead among air traffic controllers, but after a few years controllers started to organize again. Proving the old adage that the boss is the best organizer, continuing frustrations with the FAA led the controllers to form a new union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, before Reagan left office.
McCartin makes a convincing case that PATCO’s downfall was not the cause of labor’s decline, although it reinforced labor’s many problems. The number of large-scale strikes dropped dramatically in PATCO’s wake, as the severe recession of the early 1980s set in and declining union militancy and increasing concessions became the norm.
Though employers had long taken anti-union stands, the 1980s and 1990s saw a resurgence of union-busting, with crushed strikes at Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Hormel, International Paper, the Decatur battles, and the Detroit News/Free Press.
Does the labor movement still suffer from “PATCO syndrome”? The air traffic controllers were a gutsy group, and PATCO’s early years show what’s possible when a strong union acts boldly. Yet their disastrous strike has left a lasting negative impact. McCartin makes an important contribution toward understanding this complicated legacy.
Eric Dirnbach is a green jobs researcher for the Laborers Union.