Laying Down a Marker

Joseph McCartin , Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, The Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America

Oxford University Press, 496pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780199836789

reviewed by Richard Sharpe

On 3 August 1981, approximately 13,000 US air traffic controllers struck for higher wages and shorter working hours. That day Ronald Reagan, in his first year as president, gave them 48 hours to return to work or be fired; Federal employees were prohibited by law from going on strike. The vast majority did not return to work but parts of the leadership of their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), already knew that the strike was doomed. The striking controllers were replaced with newly trained controllers and military personnel. This is the story of that abortive strike.

The bold anti-union action of Reagan encouraged many employers in the private sector to replace strikers with scabs. A wave of actions replacing strikers in the private sector was set off. The result was a crippling of the union movement in the USA. Margaret Thatcher looked on in admiration, planning the defeat of the UK miners to whom she had conceded defeat in their first strike of her premiership. An iconic photograph in the book shows an air traffic controller picket holding a banner which says ‘If Polish workers can strike, so can we’, a reference to Reagan’s backing for Polish Solidarity then struggling with the Communist Party in the shipyards.

The strikers were often working class men and women who had achieved suburban middle class lives as air traffic controllers without having gone to college. Many were veterans of the US armed forces where they had learned their skills; their union had backed Reagan in his election campaign. Nevertheless, Reagan refused to back down. Several strikers were jailed; the union was fined and eventually made bankrupt. Only about 800 got their jobs back when Clinton lifted the ban on rehiring those who had struck. Many of the strikers were forced into poverty as a result of being blacklisted for employment.

Why did such a union, with the backing of so many of its members, having control of the US sky, fail? There were three reasons. First, Reagan was resolute. There were to be no back corridor discussions; there was to be on compromise. The law had been broken and the union members on strike were no longer employed by the Federal government, he argued. Some within the administration tried to find some type of compromise but all efforts failed as Reagan stuck to his guns. He had the backing of the airline executives who might have put pressure on the administration to find a solution, but did not. The airlines lost heavily: ‘One estimate concluded that the strike cost the airline industry overall $35 million per day, or more than $5 billion per month at the outset.’ The airline executives thought it better to settle the issue ‘once and for all’ by smashing PATCO.

The second reason was the lack of support from other unions. The pilots union could have pushed the issue but there was a strong antagonism between the pilots and the controllers. They cooperated but also competed. Controllers believed only they had an overall view of the skies which no pilot could replicate; the pilots believed themselves to be professionally superior to the controllers, better paid and more highly trained. The strike had cut flights during the peak summer season, giving the airline executives an excuse to demand concessions from the Air Line Pilots Association. The pilots saw PATCO’s strike as a threat to their livelihoods. Meanwhile, other unions were concerned that the strike was illegal under Federal law. Their power within their own industries was diminishing: union membership had already peaked at 24% of the American workforce in 1979 and those covered by an agreement between their union and their employer, either public or private, had peaked at 27% of the American workforce in the same year. US organised labour was already in retreat when PATCO went to the picket lines.

The third reason was a fatal flaw in the strategy of PATCO’s leaders. They thought they could empty US skies and ground civil aircraft because of fears for safety. But the efforts of the FAA to recruit and hurriedly train strike-breaking controllers; to use military controllers; to cut the capacity handled by controllers; to get supervisors to do the work of controllers; and to suppress any fears of a major crash as a result of a controller mistake, all critically undermined the union strategy. The union did not make a concerted effort to win over public opinion before the strike: many members of the public saw them as a relatively privileged group trying to use their muscle to extract a better deal from a Federal payroll which was funded by the taxpayer and the air traveller. The strike ended in total defeat for PATCO; the union was decertified in October 1981, and subsequently dissolved.
Richard Sharpe is a senior lecturer with the Department of Journalism at the University of East London and a senior associate of the London East Research Institute.