25 years later
What can be learned from PATCO strike?
Published Aug 14, 2006 8:54 PM
Twenty five years ago—on Aug. 3,
1981—workers in the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization
(PATCO) walked off the job. Seeking a shorter work week, pay increases, improved
working conditions and better safety for air travelers, the union defied an
ultimatum by newly elected President Ronald Reagan to return to
Forty-eight hours later, Reagan fired 11,359 striking air traffic
Union leaders and members were arrested, jailed and fined.
PATCO’s $3.5 million strike fund was frozen, the strike was broken and
eventually the government decertified the union.
Reagan finished what
President Jimmy Carter had begun in February 1981, before leaving office.
A month before contract negotiations had begun, the Federal Aviation
Agency (FAA)—PATCO’s employer—and the Justice Department
compiled a list of union leaders and members to be arrested if the workers went
out on strike. Both capitalist parties, Republicans and Democrats, were
responsible for the PATCO debacle—although Reagan was the more
treacherous, venomous and fork-tongued.
Just weeks before the presidential
election, on Oct. 20, 1980, candidate Reagan wrote a reassuring letter to PATCO
President Robert Poli, vowing to cooperate with the union.
“I have been briefed by members of my staff ... that too few people [are]
working unreasonable hours with obsolete equipment. ... You can rest assured
that if I am elected president, I will take whatever steps are necessary ... . I
pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring
about a spirit of cooperation between the president and the air traffic
Reagan boasted he was a lifetime, paid-up member of
the AFL-CIO. In his Hollywood days, he had been president of the Screen Actors
PATCO went all-out to get Reagan elected.
Reagan double-crossed the union and declared the strike “a peril to
national safety.” He invoked the infamous, anti-union Taft Hartley Act,
which had been legislated under President Harry Truman, a Democrat, in 1947.
This law empowers presidents of either party to break strikes and it’s
still on the books.
For 25 years, in all that has been written about
PATCO in the capitalist press, the lies, deceit and broken promises of both
Republicans and Democrats in collusion with the repressive capitalist state have
been covered up.
Writing on the 25th anniversary of the strike, an Aug. 5
opinion piece in the Washington Post—a “liberal” capitalist
newspaper—ignored this despicable, double-dealing conduct that led to
PATCO’s downfall. The article, headlined “Echoes of a Broken
Strike,” focuses on the subsequent decline in strikes, union membership
and organizing workers. It was written by Charles J. Whalen, senior political
economist at the Institute for Industry Studies, Cornell
Whalen stated, “In the immediate aftermath of the PATCO
strike, many observers reported that Reagan’s action marked a turning
point in U.S. labor relations. History has shown this assessment was right on
the mark. If it is true that the strike is labor’s ‘only true
weapon’ as some unionists suggest, then practically the entire movement
has been disarmed. This also indicates that the legal right of workers to
organize and bargain collectively has little real meaning.”
quoted data on strike-breaking by scabs. “In 2005 American labor disputes
led to 22 major work stoppages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
From the end of World War II until 1981, the annual number was about 10 times
that—and sometimes much higher. A major reason for the sharp decline:
Reagan’s headline-grabbing dismissal of PATCO workers emboldened employers
across the nation. Overnight, it became legitimate to threaten striking
employees with permanent replacement.”
Recession impacts on PATCO
The PATCO workers faced unfavorable economic conditions. High
unemployment enabled the government to quickly fill the jobs of the fired air
traffic controllers. Pilots, machinists and flight attendants fearful of being
replaced worked throughout the PATCO crisis.
PATCO lacked the support of
a general strike, which the labor movement was ill-prepared to organize. Nor did
the AFL-CIO bureaucracy led by Lane Kirkland—a cold-war patriot and class
collaborator—have the stomach for widening the conflict. As a result, the
PATCO strike was doomed to fail.
The capitalist recession was a tremendous
obstacle for PATCO and its courageous, militant, striking members.
According to a January 2002 report by the Brookings Institution Center on
Urban and Metropolitan Policy, “The 1980-82 recession was quite severe,
the worst since the Depression of the 1930s. This recession which followed the
stagflation period of the 1970s, was known as the ‘double dip’
“The national unemployment rate climbed throughout
1980 and 1981 and hovered around 10 percent for most of 1982 and 1983. ...
“Poverty also increased substantially in large cities during the
early 1980s, as it did in the rest of the nation. Between 1979 and 1983, the
number of people living below the poverty line in U.S. central cities increased
by over 3 million.”
Although the report did not elaborate on the
recession’s disproportionate impact on the Black population and other
oppressed nationalities, it is certain that unemployment and poverty
sky-rocketed for those groups.
Reagan, the duly elected servant of the
ruling class, was ruthless in his attack on the workers and the oppressed
PATCO was an early casualty. Reagan couldn’t permit
a shutdown of the air transportation system—it was a $30 billion industry,
involving 14,000 flights and 10,000 tons of air cargo a day. An average of
800,000 passengers, 60 percent of whom were business executives, passed through
U.S. terminals daily. Braniff, Eastern, TWA—now long gone —and
American Airlines were losing $30 million a day.
Timing and strike
The economic cycle of capitalist development is often
decisive, affecting how successful the workers can be in winning gains and
whether a strike is the appropriate form of the struggle.
and members have a heavy responsibility to develop a winning strategy. PATCO was
ill-prepared for the all-out assault by the Reagan administration.
for 48 hours the strike created havoc for airline corporations and hurt their
Today the air traffic controllers have reorganized.
Strikes are schools of class war. They have to be planned
carefully well in advance. As capitalism continues to rob workers of the value
of their labor power, strikes can rise to the level of general strikes and
sit-ins, as they did in the 1930s. Or they can fall, as they did in recent
years, to a low level.
There are also many forms of
struggle—economic and political—other than strikes.
favorable time for workers to prepare strike strategy is in a period of rapid
capitalist accumulation and before the cycle of recession sets in. This current
economic phase, which is producing unprecedented wealth for the few at the
expense of the many, can provide the conditions for reviving the militancy of
labor both at the bargaining table and on the picket lines.
Here is one
perspective for a broad-based struggle—organized, independent,
multi-national and class-wide—needed to reverse the 25-year decline that
began with the PATCO defeat.
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