Is the PATCO Era Ending?Roundup
tags: unions, Ronald Reagan, labor history, working class history
Joseph A. McCartin teaches history at Georgetown University. He is the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the air traffic controllers’ strike that President Ronald Reagan broke decisively when he fired those federal employees who refused to heed his back-to-work ultimatum and end their illegal walkout.
Reagan’s crushing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) was a turning point in labor relations, inspiring corporate America to fight unions harder than at any time since the 1930s. Within a year of the PATCO debacle, a number of major corporations provoked walkouts by their own workers, which the corporations then used as a pretext to fire them and bust their unions. By the late 1980s, unions had all but abandoned the strike and thereby lost a key component of worker power. Today, 40 years after the PATCO strike, only 6.3 percent of private sector workers are unionized, roughly one-third of the figure in 1981. As unions declined, inequality has grown more extreme.
American unionists have often seen their struggle in biblical terms, and measuring suffering in 40-year increments recalls the ancient Israelites, who wandered the desert for that span in search of their promised land. “Labor, like Israel, has many sorrows,” observed the preeminent union leader of the Depression era, John L. Lewis.
Lewis made that remark after the 1937 Little Steel Strike was crushed by brutal violence. Police fired into the backs of peaceful picketers in South Chicago on Memorial Day 1937, killing ten, wounding dozens. Twenty days later, a hail of deputies’ bullets killed two and wounded 50 more in Youngstown, Ohio.
Yet that defeat was a temporary setback amid a decade of great progress; the years between 1935 and 1945 saw unions achieve unparalleled growth. No sooner had Lewis evoked Exodus imagery than labor seemingly entered a land of milk and honey. Emerging from World War II, fully one-third of workers were unionized and a long postwar boom began that raised the incomes of those in the bottom two-thirds of the economy faster than those at the top, thanks in part to union strength.
It’s hard to imagine a similar leap forward today, despite the efforts of an unexpected anti-Reagan: President Joe Biden. The recent union defeat at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse illustrates why. Biden raised hopes in February when, in the midst of the Amazon union vote, he encouraged workers to unionize. Yet his words proved ineffectual. After flooding the plant with new hires just prior to the vote, thereby preventing union organizers from reaching all voters, then inundating workers with anti-union propaganda and employing a smartphone-based workplace surveillance system, Amazon defeated the union by a wide margin—no guns necessary.