Lessons of the PATCO strike

February 25, 2011

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike of August 1981 stands out as one of the toughest battles in organized labor's recent history. With Republican President Ronald Reagan's busting of the 17-month strike, this would be Act One in what would become a decade of corporate greed at the expense of U.S. workers.

Yet despite their defeat, the 13,000-strong air traffic controllers union demonstrated inspiring militancy, unity and determination, conducting an illegal strike against a popular president with little support from other unions.

Here we reprint a Socialist Worker article from August 3, 2001, on the strike's 20th anniversary, in which Elizabeth Schulte tells the story of the PATCO strike--and points out its lessons for today.

PATCO WAS one of the few unions, along with the Air Line Pilots Association, to endorse Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. But when Reagan won the White House in 1980, it was Corporate America, not his union endorsers, that he was eager to prove himself to.

While Reagan launched the attack on PATCO, the previous administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter prepared the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under Carter conducted a management campaign of harassment against union controllers. And 12 months before the government's contract with PATCO was set to expire, Carter formed a "Management Strike Contingency Force" to prepare for a walkout--including the use of scabs.

Reagan happily finished what Carter started. In February 1981, a month before contract negotiations began, the FAA and the Justice Department drew up a list of PATCO militants to arrest. Just four hours into the strike, Reagan got on TV to threaten strikers that they would be terminated if they didn't get back to work in 48 hours.

PATCO workers on the picket line
PATCO workers on the picket line

Then the movie actor-president told reporters a story about an unidentified striker who supposedly resigned from PATCO, saying, "How can I ask my kids to obey the law if I don't?"

Nevertheless, PATCO members stood strong. On the first day of the strike on August 3, 85 percent of union controllers went out. More than 6,000 flights out of a daily load of about 14,000 were immediately canceled. Two days later, Reagan fired the striking controllers.

During the walkout, the FAA was able to keep air traffic at 70 percent of pre-strike levels, largely thanks to its scabbing operation. But the administration also depended on something controllers hadn't anticipated--total disregard for public safety. According to the union, 481 near misses were reported in the first year of the strike--compared to 10 reported in the 10 years before the walkout.

The Reagan administration used everything in its arsenal to teach PATCO--and every other union--a lesson. Militants were arrested, jailed and fined. Some PATCO members with federal mortgages lost their homes. Others were denied when they tried to adopt children. The union was fined millions of dollars, and its $3.5 million strike fund was frozen. Eventually, the government succeeded in decertifying PATCO.

UNION LEADERS had a chance to show what solidarity was all about. But they passed it by. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland denounced Reagan's attack on PATCO. But he also sent a letter to AFL-CIO affiliates, discouraging them from taking any type of strike action in solidarity.

"I personally do not think that the trade union movement should undertake anything that would represent punishing, injuring or inconveniencing the public at large for the sins or the transgressions of the Reagan administration," Kirkland wrote.

Striker Terry Duffy had a response for Kirkland, published years later: "For those of you who think it is revolutionary for government workers to strike, I tell you that this is the only country in the free world that does not allow government workers to strike. I know a strike causes inconveniences. It is supposed to."

William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and a self-described "socialist," could have dealt a serious blow to Reagan. If IAM members who serviced the planes had walked out, airports across the country would have been shut down.

But Winpisinger refused to call out IAM members, citing the IAM's no-strike clause with the airlines. Other union leaders never mobilized the solidarity that they could have--with a few saying that PATCO got its just desserts for supporting Reagan.

Some union locals supported the PATCO strikers. Ed Zacovic, president of PATCO Local 203 in Oberlin, Ohio, told Socialist Worker in 1982:

I have nothing bad to say about any of the local unions--they've been great with us. But where I have my biggest problem is with the hierarchy in Washington. They're just like congressmen and senators. All they care about is themselves and the image they're going to portray to people...

Lane Kirkland didn't go out to the grassroots to see exactly how they felt about PATCO and our strike. I think that if he could have, he would have found out that the people would have been behind us, and something would have been done.

Controllers in Canada walked out briefly in solidarity with PATCO before they were threatened with huge fines and suspensions. And the sentiment existed to take on the bosses in the U.S.

The AFL-CIO's Solidarity Day march in Washington, D.C., in September 1981, a few weeks after the PATCO strike began, drew half a million union members. The AFL-CIO gave the rally its name after the mass union movement Solidarnosc (Solidarity) that was shaking Poland's bosses.

The hypocrisy of Reagan--who championed free trade unions in "communist" Poland while crushing a free trade union in the U.S.--was plain to see. But union leaders missed the opportunity to call for solidarity with PATCO from the podium--and spent most of their speeches endorsing Democrats in upcoming congressional elections.

Years of relying on a strategy of negotiations and lobbying Democrats left the labor movement ill-prepared to help PATCO take on Reagan--and powerless against the bosses' unrelenting attack on workers that followed.

In a 1982 BusinessWeek survey of 400 executives, one in five agreed that, "Although we don't need concessions, we are taking advantage of the bargaining climate to ask for them." In 1983, a third of workers with new contracts had agreed to wage cuts. By 1987, three-quarters of contracts covering 1,000 workers or more included concessions.

Discounting a few brave and bitter battles, such as the 1985 Hormel meatpackers strike, union leaders failed to take on the bosses. By 1987, strike levels fell to the lowest number since the unions' no-strike pledge during the Second World War.

For Reagan and the bosses, PATCO was the test case to set an example for the rest of the labor movement. "It was important to break PATCO because, although we may have had only 13,000 members, we were the strongest union in the federal sector," Local 203's Zacovic said at the time. "We questioned everything they said, and they didn't like it. They didn't like us talking about a strike, and they thought that if they can hold us down, they'll hold down all the workers in the federal sector."

Our side needs to learn the right lessons from the PATCO strike. First, concessions only weaken us. And second, solidarity is our only bargaining chip. Despite the devastating defeat and ruined lives, few PATCO members regretted the strike.

"Given the same set of circumstances at any given time, I would do it again," said one striker in 1984. "There is no doubt that history will prove PATCO was right in their actions. Maybe legally wrong, but surely morally right."

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