The strike that changed America

Action Speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 19, 2011

Action Speaks!, the panel discussion series at AS220, wraps up its fall program with a look back at Ronald Reagan's firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981 — a watershed moment for organized labor.

The discussion, moderated by Marc Levitt, is scheduled for October 26 at 5:30 pm and is free and open to the public. Panelists will include Paul Cannon, a former air traffic controller who was among those fired in 1981; J. Michael Downey, president of AFSCME's Council 94 labor union in Rhode Island; and Joseph McCartin, a history professor at Georgetown University and author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America.

The Phoenix, a sponsor of Action Speaks!, caught up with McCartin for a Q&A via email. The interview is edited and condensed for length.

RONALD REAGAN IS WIDELY VIEWED AS A STRONGLY ANTI-UNION FIGURE NOW. BUT THAT'S NOT REALLY ACCURATE, AS YOU'VE POINTED OUT. The Reagan known to us by reputation in recent years is more anti-union than the real Reagan was for most of his life. Don't forget that Reagan began his adult years as a New Deal liberal. In the years when he led the Screen Actors Guild, he was a strong advocate of union rights. In fact, he led the actors union in its first strike against the studios. Over time as his movie career faded, he became more conservative.

But even as the conservative Republican governor of California he was not uniformly anti-union. While he opposed Cesar Chavez's grape boycott on the one hand, he signed an extension of collective bargaining rights for local government workers in the state on the other. And when he ran for president in 1980, he sought the endorsement of unions like the Teamsters and the air traffic controllers' union, PATCO. He wanted to bring some more conservative unions into his coalition. The PATCO strike disrupted those plans. Once he fired the controllers his reputation for anti-unionism was sealed, making him appear more anti-labor than he had been for most of his career, more anti-labor than I think he intended to be.


EFFECTIVELY BROUGHT AN END TO FEDERAL WORK STOPPAGES. BUT YOU'VE ARGUED THAT IT HAD POWERFUL, LONG-TERM IMPACTS ON PRIVATE-SECTOR UNIONISM AS WELL. Once private employers saw that Reagan could permanently replace a skilled workforce of strikers and win public support for it, they became more willing to emulate him and break strikes in their private workplaces. As a result unions in time found themselves unable to stage effective strikes. Now, 30 years later the number of strikes today is less than 10 percent of what it was before PATCO.

HOW HAS THE FIRING OF THE AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS SHAPED REPUBLICAN PARTY POLITICS OVER THE LAST 30 YEARS? Reagan ignored moderate Republicans like Representative Jack Kemp who, months after PATCO was broken, urged him to show mercy and save the country money by rehiring fired controllers. Reagan refused in part because his advisers thought doing so would make him appear less strong. By interpreting the interests of his presidency this way, Reagan willingly donned the anti-union reputation that followed him from that point on. Ever since, Republicans have embraced Reagan's busting of PATCO as an unadulterated act of courage (lately governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey have revived this view). As conservatives celebrated Reagan's destruction of PATCO, moderate figures like Kemp have largely disappeared from Republicans' ranks over time. The party today is more monolithically anti-union. And conservatism is more anti-union too.

  Topics: This Just In , Ronald Reagan, AS220, AS220,  More more >
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