PATCO Legacy Discussed at Event to Launch New Book About ’81 Strike
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
President Reagan's breaking of the 1981 PATCO strike was a national headline and gift to conservatives that defined the first term of his presidency, shut over 11,000 air traffic controllers out of the profession they loved, and had a chilling impact on the labor movement that is still felt today.
This is what four former PATCO members, a federal mediator and an author of labor issues agreed on during a discussion at Georgetown University on October 18. “The PATCO Legacy and the Future of Collective Bargaining” roundtable, moderated by author and Georgetown professor Joseph McCartin, focused on how the stunning firing of more than 11,000 seemingly irreplaceable workers emboldened conservatives and right-to-work advocates, while suppressing future labor uprisings.
Kenneth Moffett, a former federal mediator involved with the PATCO negotiations, said he figured once the illegal strike began, the FAA would never deal with the union leadership again once the illegal strike began. But, the leadership didn’t expect every controller to be fired and never brought back. McCartin added that the firing changed how organized labor unions for both public and private workers viewed their leverage from striking.
“These workers were unique workers, and to break a strike so publically and against people so skilled, it sent shockwaves,” McCartin said. “That not a single one was brought back, that was huge and it is hard to overestimate the psychological impact it had on workers and employers.”
McCartin added that the PATCO strike was a culmination of sorts for two competing movements rising up around the same time in the 1960s: the conservative revolution and public-sector unions. The two were destined to clash inevitably, McCartin said, and they did so in a seismic fashion.
“Here you have these two very popular ideals that completely run counter to one another,” McCartin said. “Ronald Reagan embodied everything about the conservative movement. This was his chance to make a legacy for himself and he did it, with tragic results for many.”
Public-sector union membership remains strong, or certainly much stronger than counterparts in the private sector. Over 36 percent of government employees belong to a union, according to a 2008 study. However, most public unions are not allowed to strike, and the PATCO firings basically ended any thought of future walkouts. Stanley Gordon, a founding member of PATCO, said he saw the writing on the wall before the walkouts.
“I told the leadership, I said ‘you will never win this strike,’ because the government can’t let you win,” Gordon said. “If they let you win, what stops the postal workers or someone else from walking out the next week?”
Rick Jones, who co-founded the Coalition of Black Controllers, came to the industry in 1967 after four years in the Air Force. He said he is still bitter about what happened, but feels the controllers made the right decision.
“I came to feel like we were lied to,” Jones said, after former PATCO president John Leyden added that the union had gotten previous concessions from the government through walkouts. “When you make a pledge to someone, and the other side constantly breaks their pledge, there’s no shame in walking away and I still feel that way today.”
Also speaking at the discussion were Katie Corrigan, the policy director at the Kalmanovitz Institute at Georgetown, and Jim Stakem, a PATCO striker who worked at Washington Center.