They had to bust PATCO

August 5, 2011

This month marked the 30-year anniversary of the beginning of one of bitterest strikes of the Reagan era--the 17-month strike of Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. The federal government's ruthless treatment of strikers and its busting of the union ushered in a decades-long offensive by Corporate America.

More importantly, the strike was an inspiring example of union solidarity, militancy and determination as workers carried out an illegal strike against a popular Republican president and received little support from other unions. In August 1982, PATCO Local 203 President Ed Zacovic spoke to Socialist Worker about that strike.

I'VE BEEN a union person ever since I've had a mind of my own, being raised in southwestern Pennsylvania. The coal mines, the steel mills, all kinds of other unions down there--you saw everything that went along. My dad was a union individual. And up to the present time, I've always felt there was a need for unions.

Then I got a job as an air traffic controller. The union was started the same year I got there. I joined after a year, when they decided to allow the newer people to join. I got involved in 1975. And when I did that, I made up my mind to stay involved in the union and to do everything I could with it.

When we made a decision to go on strike, when we knew we weren't going to get a contract out of the government--locally, we went and joined the AFL-CIO.

I have nothing bad to say about any of the local unions--they've been great with us. When we needed money, we've been able to go to them and get it. The office is next door, and they let us use the copier, paper, etc. The local unions, the United Auto Workers, allow us to use their hall almost on call whenever we need it.

PATCO strikers on the picket line
PATCO strikers on the picket line

But where I have my biggest problem is with the hierarchy in Washington. They're just like congressmen and senators. They don't care about human beings. All they care about is themselves and the image they're going to portray to people.

And I think that's the biggest problem--that [AFL-CIO President] Lane Kirkland didn't go out to the grassroots to see exactly how they felt about PATCO and our strike. I think if he would have, he would have found out that people would have been behind us and something could have been done.

I think that's the problem as far as labor is concerned. When you go to the national offices of the unions in the AFL-CIO, you see that they're all old and have been away from the field for a long time. You don't see young people. If you're away from the field too long, that hurts. You forget what it's like--you forget the worker. You don't know what's going on.

I have a problem with William Winpisinger and the International Association of Machinists. There again, it's the hierarchy of the union. I know that we've had dealings with some the IAM locals, and the people seem to be supportive. Again, it comes down to the national people not coming out to the field to see what's going on.

I don't think the labor movement has learned the lessons of PATCO yet. There was a big lesson to be learned--the first union to be decertified.

I guess we had it in our minds to fight to the bitter end, and that's why a lot of our members didn't run back when the threat of firing came up. We knew we would be fired, so when the president came down with his deadline, the people were ready to just say "no." And they did.

We knew everything that was going to happen to us. We just didn't know how long a time it would be, and that hurt. The biggest mistake we made was not realizing that the airlines would get in with the Federal Aviation Administration, which they have. We have a tape of a conversation--the airlines willing to suffer a loss to help the FAA beat us. We just didn't plan on it.

We knew everything else--we expected firings, decertification, jailings. We planned on it. They had the benefit of pressure on the press, and that hurt us.

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. From the minute we were conceived in '68, we were on strike. From 1970-81, we pulled different actions that other unions in the federal sector began imitating after about five years. Other federal workers began pulling slowdowns. Everybody used to say: look at what PATCO's doing.

And it got to the point where somebody said, "We've got to do something--they're having too much control." We questioned everything they said, and they didn't like it. They didn't like us talking about a strike, and they thought if they could hold us down, they'll hold down all the workers in the federal sector.

I think that because of the way they've dealt with us, we've got to say, "Hey, this really is happening." There's anti-union militarism in the upper levels of FAA. They try to run it like the military, but it just doesn't work now. Not for the people who were in Vietnam. They don't just take orders--they question them.

The government could say things are running normal, but I question why during and an ice and snowstorm a plane went off the runway in Boston, and people got killed. Why during a heavy snowstorm in Washington did a plane take off and crash, and everybody got killed? And why during a heavy thunderstorm in New Orleans did a plane take off and crash.

I can say what I think it was--that everybody wanted to keep their time stats that had been allotted to them, because of the way they've had to cut back traffic. I can't prove it. But why in the past didn't we see accidents during bad weather. Planes don't take off from airports in the middle of a thunderstorm or snowstorm. They stay on the ground and wait the 15 to 20 minutes until the storm passes.

I think there's proof there that they're trying to keep stats. They never would have done it before. Also the fact that the people working in the tower at the New Orleans crash were three trainees who weren't checked out--and who were being trained by two people only partially checked out, and a supervisor who had only been there one year. That's the staffing we have.

This article originally appeared in the August 1982 issue of Socialist Worker.

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