Welcome Joseph A. McCartin (Wiki) and Host Joe Burns (RevivingTheStrike.org)

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America

Host, Joe Burns:

Ask any union activist what went wrong with the labor movement in the last several decades, good chance you will hear about PATCO. In 1981, Ronald Reagan fired strike members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). To many observers, this signaled a green light by the Federal government for union busting.

Professor Joseph McCartin, one of the nation’s leading scholars on the decline of the strike, has written the definitive account of the PATCO strike. In Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers and the Strike that Changed America, McCartin details two decades of struggle by this group of often militant Federal employees culminating in the failed 1981 strike. Collision Course is a well written, meticulously researched, and detailed account of the PATCO strike.

Come join in a discussion of this important book, covering a wide variety of topics: What was the impact of the PATCO strike on public sector unions? What was Reagan’s role in the PATCO strike? What can today’s public sector workers learn from PATCO’s history of struggle through the 1970s, including slowdowns and sickouts? What was PATCO’s impact on private sector workers?

Join us in the discussion with your comments and questions for today’s Book Salon author, Joseph McCartin. With the attack on unions, both public and private intensifying, the lessons of the PATCO strike are more significant than ever.

152 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Joseph McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America”

BevW October 23rd, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Joseph, Welcome to the Lake.

Joe, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Thanks for having us Bev. Welcome Joseph.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Thanks, Bev and Joe. Glad to be here.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:01 pm

So Joseph, Why did you choose to write about the PATCO strike .

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Joe, I was looking for a way to help tell the story of organized labor’s struggles over the past 40 years. It seemed to me that this pivotal event helped open up that conversation in a useful way.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:02 pm

And any other participants feel free to jump in with questions.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Most of the book is spent leading up to the PATCO strike. The story really begins in the early 1960s. What propelled this relatively conservative group of government employees to form a union?

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Did Reagan have the whole neolibrul plan in mind that has unfolded as a consequence of breaking PATCO’s back 30 years ago?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:05 pm

When I began the book, I had no idea that I would need to take the story all the way back to 1960. But I discovered that there was no way to really understand why the controllers struck in 1981 without explaining the 20 years of struggle and disappointment that led to that moment. The problems they sought to address were many. As I show in the book, they were initially motivated by the desire to make the system safer and to have a voice in policies that would do this — this was something that their employer, the Federal Aviation Administration resisted.

BevW October 23rd, 2011 at 2:05 pm

As a technical note, there is a “Reply” button in the lower right hand of each comment. Pressing the “Reply” will pre-fill the commenter name and number you are replying to and helps for everyone in following the conversation.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 2:06 pm

How/why did Reagan go from being a union leader to a union buster?

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:08 pm
In response to Joseph McCartin @ 9

I found that very interesting. You state that they became one of the more militant groups of Federal employees. Yet they started out pretty conservative and did not even call themselves a union?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:08 pm

I found that Reagan did not plan to do what he did to PATCO. He would have preferred to avoid a strike. But once the controllers struck he was determined to break that strike rather than to compromise. Later, after it was clear that he won, he was reluctant to show mercy because he felt this would make him appear weak. That decision had long range consequences that I believe he did not foresee. But whether it was planned or not the response to the strike had a devastating impact that we continue to live with. Yes, it did help promote the neoliberal anti-union project.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 2:08 pm
In response to Joseph McCartin @ 9

desire to make the system safer and to have a voice in policies that would do this — this was something that their employer, the Federal Aviation Administration resisted.

Why did FAA resist making the system safer? Has the system become less safe since the union was busted?

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:10 pm

I had no idea that PATCO members turned down a contract negotiated with the Reagan administration that many other federal employees found to be groundbreaking. Can you explain a bit about that?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:10 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 11

This was a long process for Reagan. He did not campaign in 1980 on an overly anti-union platform, though he was clearly conservative. He fought Chavez and the farm workers as governor of California in the 1960s, but he also expanded public sector collective bargaining rights there. By 1981, though the conditions were ripe to deal a blow to labor. He might not have intended to do this, but he saw political gains coming from his stance that did not deter him in responding to the strike.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 2:11 pm

I often ask a lot of Qs, thank you for your As so far, but have to duck out for awhile. With luck, I’ll be back before the end & catch up.

bluewombat October 23rd, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Did PATCO have any idea that Reagan was laying in wait for them? Would it have been better if they didn’t strike?

Also, my memory may be playing tricks with me, but I don’t think PATCO was very popular with the public — it seems to me that they had a reputation of routinely calling strikes and holding the air transport system hostage until their demands were met — I vaguely recall a column by Bob Greene (?) laying them out. How accurate or inaccurate are my memories in this regard?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:12 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 12

Controllers of the 1960s were guys of working class backgrounds who wanted to become middle class. Their dads were in unions, but they thought they did not need them. Over time it was conflict with the FAA overall that led to their transformation into militant union people.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:13 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 17

OK.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:13 pm

What were some of the tactics that they used during the 1970s to win gains given the fact that Federal labor law prohibited striking and limited negotiations over wages?

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Originally you write they did not call themselves a union even but eventually became among the more militant Federal government unions.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:15 pm
In response to bluewombat @ 18

PATCO leaders had no idea how ready the FAA was to break their strike. They were especially surprised at how far the airlines would go to help Reagan. Your memory is correct. PATCO was not popular. The controllers on average earned salaries of about $31,000 a year then, well above the median income (in todays terms it would be in the $70s). During a time of economic downturn and high inflation the public was not inclined to support them. This hurt them badly.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:18 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 21

Before the 1981 strike, controllers engaged in a variety of tactics to get the FAA to listen to them. These included sickouts and slowdowns. In 1969, one year after its creation, PATCO staged its first sickout. A year later it staged a much larger one. And at several points in the 1970s the union staged air traffic slowdowns. The downside of these tactics, the union concluded was that they alienated the public without providing the union sufficient leverage to make a big breakthrough in bargaining with the government. The controllers wanted to be able to bargain over their salaries, hours, and benefits. This was not permitted. They came to believe that only a strike could win them this right.

BevW October 23rd, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Joseph, Joe, to put this time in perspective, what percentage of the workforce in 1980 was unionized? I believe it is around 6% now.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Yet they won some improvements during the 1970s as a result of these actions?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:20 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 22

Yes, initially, they used the word “Organization” — the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization — in conscious effort not to use the word union. What made them a union was that they discovered that only conflict seemed to get the FAA to listen to them. The FAA repeatedly tried to thwart their efforts, each time they did this the agency unwittingly pushed the controllers toward a union mindset.

Phoenix Woman October 23rd, 2011 at 2:20 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 11

I suspect that his spouse Nancy Davis, whose father was a rabid conservative, might have had a lot to do with Ron’s corruption.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:22 pm
In response to BevW @ 25

In 1981, about 22 percent of the workforce was organized; a much larger percentage than at present. Today private sector unionization is below 7 percent. While we should not attribute this fall directly to PATCO’s destruction, I believe that the strike was a turning point in undermining labor’s ability to use strikes effectively (something Joe Burns has written about with great insight). That in turn helped accelerate labor’s decline.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:22 pm
In response to BevW @ 25

It was about 23 percent density of union membership overall in 1980.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:23 pm

The PATCO strike has assumed legendary status over the years. What would you say are the myths versus the reality of the PATCO strike?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:24 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 26

They did win improvements: the hiring of more controllers; controllers’ participation in safety policy making; and, through an ingenious action in the mid-1970s, the upgrading of many controllers into higher paying grades on the federal General Schedule (GS).

bluewombat October 23rd, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Thanks for your answer. The PATCO union leader, whose name escapes me at the moment but who I believe was of Italian extraction, came in for a lot of criticism for handling the strike poorly, I believe. If my memory is correct, how much of that criticism was justified?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:24 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 30

Right. Just slightly down from this a year later.

BevW October 23rd, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Ronald Reagan was the head of the Actor’s Union but not a “union leader” if I remember correctly. Didn’t he give up the names of the actors to Senator McCarthy, during the Unamerican Activities Investigations?

Phoenix Woman October 23rd, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Joseph, could you address the actual job of air traffic control itself? Part of the problem the controllers had, if I recall correctly, is that it requires top-notch eyesight and other physical demands that pretty much make it hard for someone to have it as a long-term career, which means you’re let go and forced to start over in a new career without having picked up any skills that would be useful to you in most other fields.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:26 pm

You quote one of PATCO’ slogans, I think it was something like “There are no illegal strikes, only failed strikes.” What did that mean?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:29 pm
In response to bluewombat @ 33

The union leader you mean was named Robert Poli. He became president of the union in 1980, about 20 months before the strike. He has been criticized by labor leaders from other unions for not making his rank and file understand that they had gotten all they could from Reagan by June 22 1981, when the Reagan administration made its last best offer in terms of money. Poli tentatively accepted that offer (because the union had not hit its targetted strike vote). Then Poli subsequently acceded to others in the union’s leadership who argued for a rejection of that offer and a strike to get a better one. The criticism of Poli is not unwarranted. But it misses a larger point: why it got to the point where the union rejected the June offer. My argument is that this happened in large part because the rules of federal bargaining did not allow controllers to bargain over issues like salary, forcing the union to build such momentum for a strike to try to get these issues onto the table in 1981 that it would have been difficult for any leader to get the rank and file to accept a piece-meal offer, no matter how precedent setting outsiders deemed it to be.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:29 pm
In response to BevW @ 25

One of the points I took from the book was context matters. During the late 1960s and 1970s PATCO engaged in illegal strikes and while not all successful was able to eventually get folks where were fired back to work. By 1981, the political landscape had shifted and public employees were under attack.

bluewombat October 23rd, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Thanks again for your answer.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:31 pm
In response to BevW @ 35

It wasn’t to McCarthy that Reagan gave names. But Reagan did act as an informant to the FBI. He was clearly anticommunist at this time (late 1940s), but not anti-union. Many other AFL and CIO union leaders were also trying to prove their anti-communism in these years.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:31 pm
In response to bluewombat @ 40

Bluewombat or anyone else, were you a union member in the 1980s and what did PATCO mean to you?

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 2:33 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 28

Thanks PW. I didn’t know that.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:35 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 37

As public sector unions came on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s, in most jurisdictions they lacked the right to strike. Yet they found that striking helped them achieve what they needed for their members, so they struck nonetheless. Often, states had laws that called for replacement of workers who struck, but rarely were they prepared to actually follow through on this. Strikes worked, so they were used. Even in the federal sector. 39 work stoppages took place in the federal government between 1960 and 1981. Most were small. But in 1970 tens of thousands of postal workers struck. They were not fired. Instead they helped win for themselves the right to bargain over their pay and benefits in the newly created USPS. Looking at all of this history, PATCO people concluded that even illegal strikes could be successful.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:36 pm

In your book you cite a drastic dropoff of public sector strikes after PATCO. Was that one of the results of the strike and of Reagan’s response?

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 2:37 pm

If federal unions were not allowed to bargain over compensation, what did they exist for? Are there any unions left in USG, and what are their bargaining rights?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:37 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 36

Excellent point, PW. The job was very difficult. Washout rates during training were high. If one worked in a very busy facility, such as O’Hare or New York Center, stress levels were extremely intense. It was the feeling that they were having a hard time making it to retirement that motivated a good many controllers in 1981.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:40 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 45

Joe, there was a sudden drop off in public sector strikes in the 1980s according to the data I found (the federal government stopped publishing that data, so one needs to look at the state level). I would not attribute all of this to PATCO, but I would say that once Reagan did break the strike of the highly skilled and difficult to replace controllers, then other government employers found it easier to threaten to do the same and other workers worried that they might lose jobs if they struck. It did not help matters that the PATCO strike occurred just as the country was heading into the Reagan recession.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:40 pm

It seemed like the controllers were so fired up and angry at years of abuse that it was hard to put the breaks on, especially since they thought the strike would be effective.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:42 pm

What was PATCOs effect on the private sector unions?

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Bureau of Labor Statistics, up until at least late 90s, had an annual publication on all public & private sector work stoppages, even very small ones.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:43 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 46

They could bargain over things like the content of personnel policies, the creation of grievance procedures, and the like. But they wanted more. I show in the book that the limited rights granted to federal workers by John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order 10988 helped create the dynamic of conflict and frustration that dominated in controllers’ relations with the FAA. These restrictions were never really widened. Nixon tweaked the Kennedy order in 1969 and Carter put federal union rights on legislative footing in 1978 with the Civil Service Reform Act. But they kept union rights in the federal sector restricted. They remain so to this day. The federal union still have an important role in defending federal workers. But that role has never been as robust as they would have liked it.

bluewombat October 23rd, 2011 at 2:44 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 42

I wasn’t a union member in the 1980′s, and at the time I had no idea it was such an epochal event. I just thought it was another news story, nothing more.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:44 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 49

Exactly right. I think the flaws in the system helped set this tragedy in motion.

judybrowni October 23rd, 2011 at 2:45 pm

I read somewhere that after the experienced air traffic controllers were replaced, there was an uptick in airline crashes.

Was that actually the case?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:45 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 51

Private sector tallies continued after 1981.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:45 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 51

The Reagan administration quit counting strikes of less than 1000 workers, making it hard to compare historical data. The BLS still publishes the list of major strikes, which in recent years has dipped to historical lows.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 2:46 pm

I asked above, but didn’t see an answer, why the FAA resisted making the system safer. What has happened to the safety of the system since PATCO was busted?

Is the ratio of ATCers to take offs/landings gone up or down? Has technology improved?

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:47 pm

What about the Carter administration? Many federal unions had hopes for expanded bargaining rights under Carter but they were disappointed. And the controllers lost some of the gains they had won in previous years. Did that play a factor in the 1981 strike?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:48 pm
In response to bluewombat @ 53

Good point, bluewombat. As we live history, it is hard to know whether the headlines today will be the turning points we see looking back 20 years from now. Sometimes it is the stories buried off the front pages that are the crucial ones. The 1981 strike was seen as a big defeat, but it was hard then to see how long its influence would last. That said, there were indications that the impact would be big. No other strike in the postwar era was as closely watched and televised. Everyone heard of it, though few knew it would be so consequential.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Public sector unions are a monopoly/monopsony situation. No predetermined outcome for that, but a series of power plays back & forth. I’ve never gotten into the details of those, other than noting that teachers’ strikes were always at the beginning of the school year, LOL. Details are quite interesting to me.

Tammany Tiger October 23rd, 2011 at 2:50 pm

We’re moving back in that direction. In my home state of Michigan, the Republican-controlled legislature has targeted the Michigan Education Association. Teachers’ strikes are illegal in our state, but the Republicans want to up the penalties for striking to the point that the MEA is bankrupted. They’re also supporting right-to-work legislation that applies only to public schools.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:51 pm
In response to judybrowni @ 55

There were a few accidents in the months after the strike. But not of the large mid-air collision variety that PATCO warned of. I point out in the book though that the Air Florida tragedy of January 1982 (remember Lenny Skutnik diving into the Potomac to save Pricilla Tirado?) was an event that the controllers blamed on delays caused by their having been fired. It is an interesting story that I explore in the book.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Many trade unionists point to PATCO as the beginning of the use of permanent replacements in the private sector. Yet, the employer ability to permanently replace in the private sector goes back to the late 1930s and employers were doing some permanent replacement in the 1970s. What was PATCO’s impact in this area?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:52 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 57

That’s exactly right.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I looked at it in the context of the already well underway decline of private industry unions, as corruption of union leaders, decline of employment in industrialized inds, partly owing to U.S. being outcompeted by those inds in other countries & partly owing to rising productivity in those inds, meaning fewer workers/output. And to the fact that private unions as orgs, partly thru the process already described, partly more generally, had become so moribund they didn’t even think of organizing in other industries that were growing more rapidly.

Last great private ind strike was GM in 1970, iirc.

So I did at least wonder when PATCO was busted if it was the beginning of that era for public sector unions. But as you say, its hard to tell what will follow, and how quickly, even if you register a turning point at the time.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 2:56 pm

One of the interesting points in the book was the back and forth whenever there was an accident. You say after the PATCO strike, fired strikers believed their firings would provoke an accident that may cause a reversal of their firings. Even after an accident that did not occur?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 2:58 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 58

Sorry I missed that question earlier. The FAA believed in those days that the controllers were overstating safety problems. They had an institutional interest in presenting the system as safe (that interest persists today). The ration of operations handled to controllers has gone up a lot since 1981. But the technology has improved. In 1981 there was no TCAS, the collision avoidance warning system on planes yet. When the controllers began organizing radar was still pretty primitive and “targets” did not have any identifying tags on them on a screen. Controllers would sometimes have to give a new heading to a target to be able to distinguish it from others on the screen (when it moved in a new direction, you knew which one it was). The system is certainly safer today than it was when PATCO began in 1968. But it is still heavily reliant on human beings and their technologies, which means it can still fail. Errors have not been eliminated. Indeed a recent report by the inspector general of the FAA shows them on the rise.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:00 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 64

Yes, employers had the right to permanently replace under the provisions of the Wagner Act from 1938 forward (see the Mackay decision). After 1975, employers were more willing to try to do this. But there was still an onus on those who would break strikes by hiring permanent replacements. The PATCO strike helped break that onus. It helped legitimize strike breaking in a way that no other strike could have done, for no other was as widely witnessed.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:01 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 61

True. But public sector employers are often also in the monopsony position. Controllers in 1981 had no other employer who could hire people of their specialized skill. You are right, details are interesting. Often the real story is in those details. That’s the way it is in the PATCO story, I think.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:03 pm

That’s an interesting twist I hadn’t thought of. More typical economist story is Stigler’s capture theory of regulation, where the regulated industry captures the regulators. But you are saying that it is not the airlines that captured the FAA, but rather the bureaucracy itself, for its own self-esteem, resisted change.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I read an article you wrote about the Atlanta sanitation strike of the mid 1970s where striking public employees were fired by a former civil rights activists turned mayor. Yet it was not as high profile as the PATCO strike.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:04 pm
In response to tammanytiger @ 62

Tammanytiger (great name), that is part of an emerging national pattern. Clearly, anti-labor forces are now looking to weaken public sector unions. The situation is frightening. One thing I argue here is that this goes far beyond what even a conservative like Reagan argued for in 1981. He never opposed public sector bargaining (as governor, he extended it in California). He simply opposed public sector strikes as in the case of the air traffic controllers. Latter day “Reaganites” are far more radical.

judybrowni October 23rd, 2011 at 3:04 pm

My great grandfather Lewis was a union organizer who, alongside his second cousin John L. Lewis, fought to create what would become the AFL-CIO.

Great grandfather Lewis died in the 1950s in his 90s: according to my father union organizing in the late 19th and early 20th century was both dangerous and not considered completely respectable, largely because of the dirty fight it became.

So, basically, the Republicans have spent the last 30 years dismantling what was hard fought in the previous hundred years.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:05 pm

What do you think are the lessons of the rise and fall of PATCO for today’s public sector trade unionists facing these attacks?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:06 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 71

The bureaucracy had its own interests and pursued them. Its relation to the airlines was (and is) a complicated subject. The airlines had (and have) a great deal of influence over the FAA then (and now).

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:08 pm

I found it interesting that one of the keys to the defeat of the PATCO strike was the support of the FAA by the airline industry who supported the tough line on PATCO.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:09 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 72

That’s right, Joe. If anyone wants to read that article, they can write to me at jam6@georgetown.edu and I’ll send it to them. Reagan was not the first to do what he did. But he was the first president to do this and on such a massive scale. That’s what made it a transformative event.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:09 pm
In response to judybrowni @ 74

Zinn writes that labor strikes in the U.S. began in the 1820s and didn’t make much progress for a century. And VERY bloody history. Took a lot less time to trash the progress they made.

Lewis is one of Zinn’s heroes.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:10 pm
In response to judybrowni @ 74

Indeed, it took a century to win things that are now in danger of being swept away. I think we are at a watershed moment. The stakes for the future could not be higher.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Interestingly, after People’s United, with the stepped up efforts of corp “persons” to destroy unions once & for all, everyone recognized it as a game changer.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:13 pm

From time to time, I hear trade unionists say the labor movement should have shut the country down during PATCO? What was labor’s response and why wasn’t it stronger?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:14 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 77

This surprised me too. Airlines lost a lot of money in the short run from the strike. In the long run though they may have won increased leverage over their own unions through the shift in the direction of labor relations that followed after 1981.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Certainly, as a union negotiator in the airline industry, I believe that is true. Plus it sounds like they benefited from the FAA’s plan to cut capacity after the strike.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:16 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 79

Although some today decry the OWS movement for fomenting “class war,” a quick perusal of US history shows that such conflict has been endemic. The U.S. has as bloody a labor history as any advanced developed nation.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I worked on Wall St. I once asked our airline ind analyst why anyone would ever own an airline stock, since they lose money more often than they make a profit, and are a capital intensive ind with no barriers to entry. He looked at me with a wry smile, and said: “They think they can time the cycle.” He knew neither he nor they could, but was making good money trying, so wasn’t complaining.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:18 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 84

Yes, the airlines used the strike to try to reorganize themselves for the era of deregulation. That is something that PATCO did not anticipate, i.e., that the airlines would see the strike not so much as a threat to their bottom lines as an opportunity to organize themselves for a new (and more anti-union) era.

judybrowni October 23rd, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I have photos of Great grandfather Lewis: who resembles John L. including by what the family calls “the Lewis eyebrows.”

My father also inherited the Lewis eyebrows, but luckily, I didn’t.

However, I believe the Lewis heritage also was passed on through five generations who have voted Democratic.

So I take particular umbrage when Democratic politicians also take to the fight against unions.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:19 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 81

True, I think they did. Sometimes it is quite obvious that you are living through a game changer.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:20 pm

I’m not familiar with labor history in other developed economies, but it would not surprise me if U.S. had the bloodiest history.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:20 pm
In response to judybrowni @ 88

Part of the story I took from the book was the failure of the Carter administration to follow through on Federal labor law reform, and even worse, erasing some of the gains of PATCO in the early 1970s, contributed to the strike.

SanderO October 23rd, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Workers don’t need a union to strike do they? The union is an organization which represents them collectively. No?

judybrowni October 23rd, 2011 at 3:22 pm

The Lewis eyebrows: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&sugexp=kjrmc&cp=8&gs_id=6&xhr=t&q=john+l+lewis&qscrl=1&nord=1&rlz=1T4GGLL_enUS303US303&gs_sm=&gs_upl=&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.,cf.osb&biw=1024&bih=526&ion=1&wrapid=tljp131940843665006&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:22 pm

OK, but I’m still hoping for the law of the unintended outcome to work its magic. Blowback showing up in OWS is part of that.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:23 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 91

What were the political/financial connections of Carter that made his governing less than promised in his campaign?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:24 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 82

Leaders of the AFL-CIO were in a bind. PATCO’s strike was not popular (even among many labor rank-and-filers who resented the controllers’ salaries and insulation from layoffs in economic downturns). Reagan, on the other hand, was still enjoying a popularity bounce from having survived an assassination attempt. The strike was also clearly illegal. The unions were afraid to take a militant stance in PATCO’s corner. It would have been hard to do this when the key union, the airline pilots, strongly opposed the strike. Without the pilots’ support, the machinists also refused to stay off the job. Could labor have done more? It is easy to play Monday morning quarterback on this. But in the moment, it seemed highly unwise to try to do more than offer symbolic and rhetorical support. The real tragedy was less that labor did not act than that the unions found themselves in such a no-win situation to begin with.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:24 pm
In response to SanderO @ 92

You are right, workers do not need a union to strike but nowadays most workers strike with a union. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many strikes were without unions where workers got fed up and struck and then formed a union.

One lesson from PATCO and from the 1970s public employees is that unions do not need a legal right to strike in order to strike.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:25 pm
In response to judybrowni @ 93

Heh. Quite a set of jowls, too.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:26 pm

The pilot’s union, ALPA, had a fractured relationship with PATCO and you write that even the little support ALPA leadership gave became controversial with some pilot members.

SanderO October 23rd, 2011 at 3:27 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 97

One of the takeaways from OWS is that people don’t need formal unions if their voice if loud enough. An effective strike cannot be ignored in many cases… rehiring is not always an option. It may be a in a high unemployment market. But a union per se us not making a strike more effective.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:28 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 91

True, Joe. This part of the book speaks well to the present moment, I think. Part of what drove the controllers to strike in 1981 was that the Democratic presidency of Jimmy Carter did so little to address their issues. Carter was more focused on foreign policy, restraining budget deficits, and reining in inflation. He was often at odds with the labor wing of his party and public sector unions like PATCO or AFSCME were among the most disappointed with him. Carter’s poor relations with the Dems tradition base contributed to the instability of 1980-81. His decision to sign a very disappointing (to unions) Civil Service Reform Act, contributed to the disaffection.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:28 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 97

Zinn argues that some of the most effective strikes were the leaderless ones, as those were true grass roots & leaders could not be corrupted by blandishments from rich & powerful. Sit-ins particularly effective bc they close down the facility, strikers don’t have to endure weather, and they get to confabulate about their grievances.

Why did PATCO not do a sit-in?

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:29 pm
In response to SanderO @ 100

In fact, the biggest strike of the last decade was not as a result of a union. It was the immigrant worker’s strike of 1996, where hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers stayed away from work to engage in protests.

judybrowni October 23rd, 2011 at 3:29 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 98

Luckily, I also haven’t inherited the jowls, not yet anyway.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:29 pm
In response to SanderO @ 92

True, but it is hard to organize a successful strike without resources, planning, staying power, and help from other workers. Unions traditionally have provided these.

SanderO October 23rd, 2011 at 3:30 pm

And of course wherever their is a hierarchical concentration of power you find corruption. Unions as important and as good as they are, are like other top down institutions rife for corruption to take hold.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Zinn includes Carter-Reagan-Bush all in the same chapter as the reversal of the gains made by the people in the 1960s.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:31 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 95

Carter worried a lot about inflation in the late 1970s. Above all it was inflation (largely driven by the oil crises of the decade) that helped push him into conflict with unions.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:31 pm
In response to judybrowni @ 104

LOL. Don’t know your age, but late 60s is time to start to take on the jowly look.

SanderO October 23rd, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Absolutely true.. there are benefits to organized systems. It’s a mixed blessing perhaps. I do support unionism but I also support strikes without unions.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:32 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 102

Leaderless strikes have made breakthroughs on occasion. But in the modern era with corporate power so well organized, it has mostly been the case that organization and institutions are necessary to win struggles. Whether that continues to be the case as we go forward, I cannot say.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:32 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 102

PATCO did engage in a lot of on the job actions throughout the 1970s and some argued after Reagan’s ultimatum they should return to work and fight on the job. Not a sit-in but a slow down.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:33 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 103

I will accept your definition of that as a strike, but by that definition, what did it win?

SanderO October 23rd, 2011 at 3:35 pm

This is true and why the powerful have been wining for decades.. more resources to fight labor. If the 99 can really show some numbers all the advantage fades. Hopefully the 99 are inspiring each other and will ramp up the numbers of the disenfranchised who demand change at the front line.

BevW October 23rd, 2011 at 3:35 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 103

Was this related to the work slowdowns, stoppages in the Hotel Industry? I remember years ago about the workers actions.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:35 pm

It was a political strike and not really calculated to win specific gains from employers. It did shutter a lot of industries that relied on immigrant labor. Ultimately, it did not accomplish its political goal but did raise the issue of immigration reform pretty effectively.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:35 pm

That’s a straw man, completely & utterly. Inflation of the 1970s was created by 2 oil crises, Nixon’s price controls in early 70s, and Arthur Burns’ inflationary monetary policy. Labor lost out at every turn, but it was Carter who started the meme that catch-up wages, which always lag price inflation, would be inflationary. That is just another example of Zinn’s correct classification of him in the same bag as Reagan & Bush I.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:36 pm
In response to SanderO @ 106

Anarchism has a long and honorable history. But I don’t think we will get rid of structured institutions any time soon. The larger question is can we make the institutions we have accountable to the greater good? I think rather than trying to get rid of institutions, we need to democratize them. Unions are imperfect vehicles (as all human creations are), and they themselves need to be accountable, but by and large they help move us in the right direction.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:36 pm
In response to BevW @ 115

No it was in relationship to the Mayday rallies of 2006.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:37 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 112

They considered and rejected this idea in 1981. After that fact, they might have wanted to revisit that alternative though.

SanderO October 23rd, 2011 at 3:38 pm

As far as formal organizations… unions are all the left anti capitalists have in their struggle… which now for survival as oppposed to *just* better working conditions. Stakes are much higher these days. And that’s not worked out too well for workers or the 99 which even includes management.

Time for a paradigm shift.. cue OWS

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:39 pm

In your research, did anything surprise you about PATCO’s history or the strike that was different than what you had thought about the PATCO strike?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:39 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 116

I agree.

judybrowni October 23rd, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Yikes, I still have nine years to develop jowls!

However, my Dad still has the Lewis eyebrows at 88, but still votes the Democratic ticket and hasn’t developed the Lewis jowls, so there’s hope for me.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:40 pm
In response to SanderO @ 121

I would argue that unions are as relevant now as ever. In my book, Reviving the Strike, I argue that we can learn a lot from even conservative unions of decade’s past. That is one of the reason’s I found Collision Course so interesting, was its treatment of PATCO leading up to the strike.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:42 pm
In response to SanderO @ 121

Perhaps a paradigm shift is in order. But OWS includes people of widely varying and even opposed ideas (as any good movement will do at this stage). Sorting out a general direction will take time and work; I suspect that rather than abandoning unions, the bulk of OWS people will want to work along side them, and unions will want to work along side those of the 99 percent who care about workers and the power imbalance that characterized most workplaces these days.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:45 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 125

I agree with you, Joe. OWS has done a great service in getting us to think about who has power and how and for whom it is deployed. Now begun, that conversation needs to point us back into the workplaces where so much that is wrong about our society now has its roots.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:45 pm

So, it sounds like you got to interview quite a few PATCO strikers. What has their response to the book been?

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:48 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 122

I was surprised to find that Reagan was not more anti-union than I found him to be. That he was less anti-union than I thought led me to appreciate all the more how far things have shifted in the direction of anti-unionism since 1981. Regarding PATCO, I was surprised to find that an organization composed overwhelmingly of white military vets who lived in the suburbs was willing to be as militant as it became. That told me a lot about the impact of the 1970s on American workers — it was a harsh time, not so unlike our own.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Yes many people look at the current weakness of unions and say we can abandon the workplace. Yet at the end of the day, employer power in this society has its roots in the workplace.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I was surprised by Reagan’s role as well. I had assumed he went looking for a confrontation to put union’s in their place, but that does not appear to be the case.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:50 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 128

Joe, their response has been overwhelmingly positive. I would say that the response of non-striking controllers has also been positive. Both sides say they feel I got their story and their reasoning right. I would encourage readers to look at my blog where I’m sharing some reactions to the book I’ve gotten from those who lived through the strike. Go to:
http://mccartin-collisioncourse.blogspot.com/

judybrowni October 23rd, 2011 at 3:50 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 125

I agree that unions are as relevant now, as ever.

I see hope for the new generations of unions in the hotel workers unionizing, for instance. Local residents supported them and they won in the California town I live in.

During their second strike and negotiations I got a phone call with a push poll, worded to make it seem that somehow the hotel worker’s strike would negatively affect locals.

When asked if I supported the union workers, the poller seemed surprised that I still supported the workers over the hotels.

My bet is, they got the same response from other city residents because the hotels caved on negotiations soon after.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:50 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 130

Absolutely. And it is there too that the power of the 99 percent can really be felt if they are organized.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Yes that is great. People may not know that not too long after the strike, the replacements formed their own union and have fought over many of the same issues.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:51 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 131

No. In that respect he is not nearly as radical as a Scott Walker in Wisconsin or some of the other leading anti-unionists of our day.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:52 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 135

I did not know that. That’s very very impt.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:53 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 137

It shows that the underlying issues they face did not go away.

BevW October 23rd, 2011 at 3:53 pm

As we come to the end of this Book Salon,

Joseph, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and Unions.

Joe, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Joseph’s website and book

Joe’s website – RevivingTheStrike.org

Thanks all, Have a great week.

Next Week -
Saturday – Glenn Greenwald / With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful; Hosted by Jonathan Hafetz

Sunday – Paul Koudounaris / The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses; Hosted by Wendy Fonarow

If you want to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:54 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 135

That is correct. In the end the PATCO story ends up demonstrating the deep desire of workers for organization if they have the means to create organization. Within five years of breaking PATCO the FAA saw replacement workers form a union.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Well I really liked this book. Not only for the discussion of the PATCO strike but also for its treatment of public employee unionism in the 1970s. It really is a rich and hidden history.

Joe Burns October 23rd, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Thanks for the talk Joseph and thanks Bev and FDL for hosting another labor discussion.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:55 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 137

It is important. That union is called that National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Its very existence is a monument of sorts to PATCO. Today controllers salaries and benefits are still positively affected by what the government did for replacement workers to reward them for staying on.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:56 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 138

Exactly.

David Kaib October 23rd, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Great discussion. Too bad I got here and finished reading the thread just as it ended.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 3:57 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 142

Thanks, Joe. Thanks Bev. Thanks all who participated. I’m sorry if I couldn’t keep up with all the questions and comments. I wish I was a faster typer. If anyone wants to pursue other questions, please contact me at jam6@georgetown.edu. Thanks to all the FDL community. Keep on reading and keep on agitating.

eCAHNomics October 23rd, 2011 at 3:58 pm
In response to Joe Burns @ 138

I worked on Wall St. I found troops were smart, hard working, knowledgeable (though you could certainly criticize them for personal morality choices), but that management were complete dolts. The more I learn about other inds, the more I gather evidence that this model might be pretty universal.

Which is of course why top management pays itself so handsomely. Since everything in U.S. is measured in money, if you get paid a lot it is prima facie evidence that you are worth a lot & can hide huge amounts of incompetence.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Sadly, it does seem like a widespread model, eCAHNomics. Keep fighting it.

Joseph McCartin October 23rd, 2011 at 4:03 pm
In response to David Kaib @ 145

Sorry I missed you, e-mail me at jam6@georgetown.edu if you’d like to chat. Thanks all!!

Tammany Tiger October 23rd, 2011 at 4:40 pm
In response to judybrowni @ 88

Robertson Davies, the Canadian author, said that Lewis was the only man who could both beat and beetle his eyebrows.

DWBartoo October 23rd, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Very late to the party … this was a great Book Salon.

Much appreciation to all.

Thank you, Joseph, Joe, and Bev.

Excellent, and very informative, comments and questions.

DW

angryspittle October 23rd, 2011 at 6:18 pm

St. Ronnie was a dirty duplicitous goddamn con man. While he was praising the Poles he was crushing Patco.

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