An Unhappy Anniversary for Labor

Pub date August 22, 2006
WriterDick Meister

It was 25 years ago this month that Ronald Reagan struck the blow that sent the American labor movement tumbling into a decline it’s still struggling mightily to reverse.
Reagan, one of the most antilabor presidents in history, set the decline in motion by firing 11,500 of the overworked and underpaid air traffic controllers whose work was essential to the operation of the world’s most complex aviation system.
Reagan fired them because they dared respond to his administration’s refusal to bargain fairly on a new contract by striking in violation of the law prohibiting strikes by federal employees. What’s more, he also destroyed their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).
Public and private employers everywhere treated Reagan’s action as a signal to take an uncompromising stand against the unions that they had accepted and bargained with, however reluctantly, as the legitimate representatives of their workers.
At that time, one-fourth of the US workforce was represented by unions. Today, largely because of employer actions since then — often openly illegal actions — the percentage of workers with union bargaining rights is less than half that.
Ironically, PATCO had broken with other AFL-CIO affiliates to endorse Reagan’s successful run for president in 1980. The union did so because Reagan had promised to “take whatever steps are necessary” to improve working conditions and otherwise “bring about a spirit of cooperation between the president and the air traffic controllers.”
Yet PATCO negotiators were rebuffed a year later when they asked for a reduction in working hours, lowering of the retirement age, and other steps to ease the controllers’ extraordinary stress, plus a substantial pay raise and updated equipment.
PATCO had no choice but to abandon its demands or strike to try to enforce them. And when the union struck, Reagan, certain of broad public support because of his great popularity, issued an ultimatum to the strikers: return to work within 48 hours or be fired and replaced permanently by nonunion workers.
Faced with millions of dollars in fines for vioutf8g Reagan’s order and the antistrike injunctions that his administration and airlines had sought and stripped by the administration of its right to represent the controllers, PATCO declared bankruptcy and went out of business.
Although Reagan’s ban on rehiring strikers was later lifted by Bill Clinton and a stronger, new union now represents controllers, safety experts say the air traffic control system remains understaffed and the controllers still under far too much stress.
That’s unlikely to change during the administration of George Bush, who’s as antilabor as was Ronald Reagan. The Bush administration, in fact, has imposed a new contract on the controllers that cuts their pay and pension benefits.
Neither is it likely that other employers will abandon the crippling antilabor practices that were inspired and furthered by Reagan.
Firing and permanently replacing strikers, previously a rare occurrence, has become a common employer tactic. It’s now the strike — an indispensable weapon for workers in collective bargaining — that only rarely occurs.
It isn’t just strikers who face penalties for exercising their legal rights. Employers also have taken to firing or otherwise penalizing workers who seek union recognition, despite the law that promises them the right to freely choose unionization. Many employers have also hired “ management consultants” who specialize in Reagan-style union busting.
“For all practical purposes, Americans have lost the freedom to form unions,” notes AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. “Our labor laws are so weak and so feebly enforced that workers join the union in spite of the law.”
It’s no coincidence that as union ranks have shrunk under the relentless antilabor pressures first applied to air traffic controllers a quarter century ago by Ronald Reagan, the ranks of the American middle class also have shrunk — as has the ordinary American’s share of the country’s wealth. SFBG
Copyright © 2006 Dick Meister, a San Francisco–based writer who has covered labor issues for four decades. Contact him through his Web site,