Dick Meister: Ronald Reagan’s Law of the Jungle

Pub date January 20, 2011
WriterDick Meister
SectionBruce Blog

Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century.

The 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’ s birth is coming up in February, and before the inevitable gushing over what a wonderful leader he was begins, let me get in a few words about what sort of a leader he really was.

Ronald Reagan was, above all, one of the most viciously anti-labor presidents in American history, one of the worst enemies the country’s working people ever faced.

Republican presidents never have had much regard for unions. But until Reagan, no Republican president had dared challenge labor’s firm legal standing, gained through Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the mid-1930s.

Reagan’s Republican predecessors treated union leaders much as they treated Democratic members of Congress – as adversaries to be fought with at times, but also as people to be bargained with at other times. Reagan, however, engaged in precious little bargaining. He waged almost continuous war against organized labor and the country’s workers from the time he assumed office in 1980 until leaving the presidency in 1988.

Reagan had little apparent reason to fear labor politically. Opinion polls at the time showed that unions were opposed by nearly half of all Americans, and that nearly half of those who belonged to unions had voted for Reagan in both his presidential campaigns.

Reagan, at any rate, was a true ideologue of the anti-labor political right. Yes, he had been president of the Screen Actors Guild, but he was notoriously pro-management in that position. He led the way to a strike-ending agreement in 1959 that greatly weakened the union and finally resigned as union president under heavy membership pressure before his term ended.

Reagan’s war on labor as U.S. president began in the summer of 1981, when he fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers and destroyed their union.

As Washington post columnist Harold Meyerson noted, that was “an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers. Employers got that message loud and clear, illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing  permanent employees  who could collect benefits with temps who could not, and shipping factories and jobs abroad.”

Reagan gave dedicated union foes direct control of the federal agencies that were originally designed to protect and further the rights of workers and their unions. Most important was Reagan’s appointment of three management representatives to the five- member National Labor Relations Board.

The appointees included NLRB Chairman Donald Dotson, who declared that “unionized labor relations have been the major contributors to the decline and failure of once healthy industries” and have caused “destruction of individual freedom.”

A House committee found that under Dotson, the NLRB abandoned its legal obligation to promote collective bargaining, in what amounted to “a betrayal of American workers.”

The NLRB settled only about half as many complaints about employers’ illegal actions as did the board during the previous administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter. Most of the complaints were against employers who responded to organizing drives by illegally firing union supporters. The employers were well aware that, under Reagan, the NLRB was taking an average of three years to rule on complaints, and the board did no more than order that the discharged unionists be reinstated with back pay – which was much cheaper than if the employers had been operating under a union contract.

The board stalled as long before acting on petitions from workers seeking union representation elections, and generally stalled for another year or two after such votes before certifying winning unions as the workers’ bargaining agents. Also under Reagan, employers were allowed to permanently replace workers who dared exercise their legal right to strike.

Reagan’s Labor Department was as one-sided as the NLRB. It became an anti-Labor Department, virtually ignoring, for example, the union-busting consultants that many employers hired to help them fend off unionization.

Very few consultants and very few of those who hired them were asked for the financial disclosure statements that the law demands, Yet all unions were required to file the statements that the law required of them – and that could be used to the advantage of their opponents. Although the department cut its overall budget by more than 10 percent, it increased the budget for such union-busting activities by almost 40 percent.

Among Reagan’s many other outrages, there were his attempts to lower the minimum wage for younger workers, weaken the child labor and anti-sweatshop laws, tax fringe benefits, and cut back programs to train unemployed workers for available jobs. He also tried to replace thousands of federal employees with temporary workers who would not have civil service or union protection.

Reagan all but dismantled programs that required affirmative action and other steps against discrimination by federal contractors. And he seriously undermined job safety programs.  He closed one-third of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s field offices, trimmed the agency’s staff by more than one-fourth and decreased the number of penalties assessed against offending employers by almost three-fourths.

Rather than enforce the laws, Reagan appointees sought “voluntary compliance” from employers on safety matters – and generally didn’t get or expect it. Reagan had so tilted the safety laws in favor of employers that safety experts declared them virtually useless.

The same could have been said of all other labor laws in the Reagan era. A statement issued at the time by the leaders of several major unions concluded that it would have been more advantageous for those who worked for a living to ignore the laws and return to “the law of the jungle” that prevailed a half-century before.

The suggestion came a little late. Ronald Reagan had already plunged the nation’s labor-management relations deep into the jungle.

Yet Reagan will nevertheless be honored in centennial celebrations throughout the United States, in Europe and elsewhere in coming days.  He’s become a much beloved mythical figure, and nothing will change that, certainly not the unheard or unacknowledged facts of his presidency and its disastrous effects on America’s working people, many of whom ironically will be among the celebrants.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his columns.