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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 work.

Forty-eight hours later, Reagan fired 11,359 striking air traffic controllers.

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.

Reagan wrote, “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 controllers.”

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 Guild.

PATCO went all-out to get Reagan elected.

Once 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 University.

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.”

Whalen 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 strike

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’ recession. ...

“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 nationalities.

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 strategy

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.

Union leaders and members have a heavy responsibility to develop a winning strategy. PATCO was ill-prepared for the all-out assault by the Reagan administration.

Yet for 48 hours the strike created havoc for airline corporations and hurt their bottom line.

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.

The most 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.