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The Collision That Changed the Course of Labor

by RON JACOBS

It’s a vague memory to say the least.  In late summer 1981 the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) went on strike and were promptly fired en masse by then President Reagan.  Solidarity pickets sprang up around the country, with a good number of them occurring in the union-friendly San Francisco Bay Area.  I remember attending a couple.  The one I recall the best took place at the Oakland Airport which, like most municipal airports, was in a rather remote part of Oakland.  I took a city bus to the airport and joined the picket.  Sometime during the day a group of PATCO workers and sympathizers attempted a blockade of one of the runways.  They were momentarily successful.  I don’t recall whether the participants were arrested or just cited.  As the strike wore on, many of the controllers found work elsewhere.

The PATCO strike was a watershed event in US labor history.  The mass firing of the controllers and their replacement with less-skilled replacements (or scabs as I prefer to call them) created a new dynamic in capitalism’s ongoing battle with labor unions.  In addition, the misguided perception that workers paid by the government were somehow less worthy of the wages they received gained a foothold in the public mindset.  Of course, this perception was fanned by the anti-union right wing corporate administration nominally headed by Ronald Reagan.

Labor historian Joseph A. McCartin’s recently published book Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, The Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike the Changed America, examines this labor action and its effect on unionism in the United States.  Expertly researched, McCartin’s text describes the history of the union, its always tenuous relationship with the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), the controllers’ understanding of that relationship, and PATCO’s relationship to the rest of the labor movement.  Furthermore, Collision Course provides an instructive look at the pitfalls of workers’ organizations that emphasize their differences with other wage earners instead of their similarities.

This latter phenomenon is one common among wage earners that are considered professional.  In the union organizing drives that I have been involved at in universities and government agencies, one of the biggest obstacles to overcome was the idea among my fellow workers that we were somehow different from the folks that ran backhoes, swept floors or mowed lawns.  After all, our jobs were “professional” in nature.  Some forks refused to acknowledge that, when it came down to the nitty gritty, the only that really mattered to management was the fact that we worked for them.  Our job descriptions were irrelevant.  After all, we sold our labor the same as any other worker.  Usually, the only way to convince so-called professionals that this was the case was when management made across the board cuts or increases in premiums.  Only then did it become clear that all those selling their labor were perceived in a similar way by management no matter  what their job entailed.

PATCO was founded on the assumption that their work was different from that of airline mechanics, stewards and other non-pilot employees.  In fact, air controllers saw their jobs as something akin to that of the pilots.  Indeed, that argument is true for all practical purposes.  However, as the recent history of labor relations between airline pilots and management makes clear, when the proverbial shit hits the fan, management does not see pilots any different than they see baggage handlers.  In other words, any and all are expendable. when they affect the bottom line.

According to McCartin, the air controllers union was one of the stronger unions composed of federal government employees.  He provides multiple examples of this strength throughout the text.  Their strength and cohesive front was able to win air traffic controllers pay raises and improved working conditions from the 1950s through the late 1970s.  Even though most of these successes occurred during relatively good economic times for US capitalism, they were not achieved without struggle.  They were also achieved when the public perception of unionism was quite positive.  It was a change in this perception that provided management with a means to destroy PATCO.  Like a scenario from an Upton Sinclair novel, the growing recession after 1973 combined with a resurgence of a pro-business right wing political movement in the US made it possible for corporate media to convince many US residents that fair wages and those demanding them were the cause of their economic misery, not the corporate world and its greed.  The election of Ronald Reagan and his right wing cabal ensured the further demise of pro-worker sentiment in the United States.

Collision Course is the story of one union’s contradictions.  Socially conservative and pro-war while simultaneously pro-worker and anti-management, PATCO reflected the political schizophrenia of most US labor unions during the period of its existence.  There were very few African-American members or women, even thought the FAA was hiring more and more controllers from both demographics, thanks to affirmative action regulations.  Like the building trades unions and their well-publicized refusal to allow black Americans into its hiring halls, PATCO’s white male culture prevented a solidarity that would certainly have strengthened its membership and bargaining power.  The inability to see the necessity for solidarity beyond their white middle class aspirations contributed to the collapse of the union when threatened by Reagan’s battle ax.  In addition, the lack of support from AFL-CIO leadership provided other unions’ rank and file with a mixed message.

No union is stronger than its members.  No labor movement is stronger than its unions.  If labor’s rank and file are unwilling to support their fellow workers in their workplace struggles, the likelihood of management getting its way in the workplace and in the political scene increases exponentially.  This is McCartin’s clearest message.  The blame for current state of US labor is not only to be found in the bank accounts of corporate CEOs and the pro-business policies of the Republican and Democratic Party leaders.  It can also be placed on the backs of unions that crossed picket lines set up by fellow workers; on labor leaders more interested in cozying up to politicians then in forcing them to defeat anti-labor legislation; on unions that increase their membership by destroying other unions; and, more generally, on union policies that still fail to truly embrace a strategy that sees the entire working class of the planet as one against an international corporate class.  Like the song says: Solidarity Forever….

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at:ronj1955@gmail.com

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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