On Sept. 19, 1981, the AFL-CIO, under pressure from the rank and file as well as union locals throughout the country, organized a Solidarity Day march in Washington, D.C., that drew over half a million people. It was the first national demonstration by organized labor in decades, and perhaps the only one since.
The events leading up to this march were both historic and important. The event that led up to the march was the strike, beginning Aug. 3 of that year, of 15,000 air traffic controllers, members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, who walked out and struck against their employer, the Federal Aviation Administration.
Higher wages were not the central issue in the PATCO strike. The main issues were understaffing, which also impacted on the safety of commercial airline travelers, forced overtime and stress-related illnesses, both physical and emotional, that had forced many controllers into either early retirement or long absences from work.
The response of the Ronald Reagan administration was swift and brutal. Reagan warned the workers that if they did not return to work within two days, he would invoke the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act and terminate all the workers. There were to be no negotiations to end the strike, but only total surrender to all the demands of the government. The strikers rejected this extortion, and 12,000 workers stood fast and remained on the picket line. Many participated in mass civil disobedience, which led to dozens of arrests and imprisonment.
AFL-CIO failed to act
Sadly, despite the outpouring of working-class support for the strike action to defy the ruling class, reflected in the Solidarity march a month later, the AFL-CIO leadership became both hesitant and frightened. It put a brake on calls for a general strike, as well as any further broader mobilizations of direct action called by other unions.
In point of fact, the AFL-CIO told other unions representing the airline industry to return to work and ignore PATCO picket lines. The results, clearly seen within a year, were disastrous and foreboding. Isolated by the lack of a proactive stance by the AFL-CIO, PATCO was outlawed by the courts and the Reagan administration. Active members were blacklisted and marked against further employment that had anything to do with the profession of air traffic control.
This also gave the green light for the ruling class to open up a barrage of attacks against the labor movement. Interestingly, the mouthpiece for the capitalist class, the Wall Street Journal, stated just as much in an Aug. 6, 1981, editorial, saying Reagan should break the strike “for all sorts of far-reaching reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with relations between the Federal Aviation Administration and PATCO.” It added that “more important are the commitments to rebuild military strength, to restore the dollar to soundness, to cut taxes [on the wealthy, of course!] and regulations, to resist Soviet imperialism [sic], and to curb the wild ascent of federal spending.”
So there you have it. The die was cast and the script was written for defeats in other labor struggles throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Notable were Hormel Meat Packing, where the United Food and Commercial Workers refused to support Local P-9 in its struggle against a 23 percent wage cut; the defeat of Phelps Dodge copper miners in Arizona, where after a three-year struggle the corporate giant carried out the largest decertification in U.S. labor history, decertifying 35 locals in 13 different unions, an act that was declared legal by the National Labor Relations Board; and the defeat of the Greyhound bus drivers, represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union, when 12,000 workers walked off the job, as well as many other labor struggles where the ruling class was emboldened by the defeat of PATCO.
Business unionism vs. social unionism
The systemic root causes of the crisis in labor result from a number of factors, chief among them total reliance and dependence on the Democratic Party. This is the model of “business unionism,” as opposed to social unionism, which takes a holistic approach to what unions should look like, i.e., mobilizing the constituent base, nonconcessionary bargaining, the fight against globalization of capital, international solidarity with other workers, especially in developing countries, and an anti-capitalist framework for struggle.
The AFL-CIO has a blind spot when it comes to the Democratic Party and its bipartisan unity with the Republican Party and the ruling class on deregulation of the economy, cutbacks in social services and the privatization of jobs in the public sector, as well as the increasing ability of capitalism to outsource industrial as well as high-tech jobs. Most important are both parties’ alliance with the ruling class on wars and imperialism and their promoting the idea that the working class has a common interest with its employer.
An exemplary model of social unionism, on the other hand, can be seen in the recent victory of the school bus drivers in Boston. In 2013, Veolia Transportation, now known as Transdev, contracted with the city of Boston to run the school buses. It soon started violating central provisions of the union contract of Local 8751 of the United Steelworkers of America. The modus operandi of the company was to break the union.
When the union leadership was falsely accused of instigating a wildcat strike, Transdev fired four officers of the local. However, if Transdev had done its research it would have found that Local 8751 was not your typical union. The union won its first contract in 1978 and has fought against the attempt to resegregate the schools. It has also built a rock-solid relationship with the parents of the children, as well as community groups. Some 98 percent of the local’s 900 members are people of color: Haitian, African-American, Latino/a and Cape Verdean.
The local has been involved with the anti-war movement, the struggle against racism and support for Palestine, as well as demonstrating for LGBTQ rights. This past Dec. 23, members not only ratified a four-year contract, with back pay, but also won back the four fired union officers, who had faced red-baiting because some are members and leaders of Workers World Party.
This is not only a victory of the school bus drivers and their union but a victory and a model for all unions and the working class in general. Progressives and the left need to start from the bottom up in supporting and mobilizing unions, and using class struggle unionism as a model.