"Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers

Dateline: Wed 07 Sep 2011

"and the Strike that Changed America" is a new book, due out Oct. 6, by Joseph A. McCartin, associate professor of history at Georgetown University and author of "Labor's Great War."

The author was interviewed on the Diane Rehm show today on National Public Radio; the program ended at noon. I caught just the tail end, but it was enough to tell me the subject matter is timely and the author has plenty to offer about the current labor movement and how it got the way it is.

Here's a summary from Amazon.com

"In August 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) called an illegal strike. The new president, Ronald Reagan, fired the strikers, establishing a reputation for both decisiveness and hostility to organized labor. As Joseph A. McCartin writes, the strike was the culmination of two decades of escalating conflict between controllers and the government that stemmed from the high-pressure nature of the job and the controllers' inability to negotiate with their employer over vital issues. PATCO's fall not only ushered in a long period of labor decline; it also served as a harbinger of the campaign against public sector unions that now roils American politics.

"Collision Course sets the strike within a vivid panorama of the rise of the world's busiest air-traffic control system. It begins with an arresting account of the 1960 midair collision over New York that cost 134 lives and exposed the weaknesses of an overburdened system. Through the stories of controllers like Mike Rock and Jack Maher, who were galvanized into action by that disaster and went on to found PATCO, it describes the efforts of those who sought to make the airways safer and fought to win a secure place in the American middle class. It climaxes with the story of Reagan and the controllers, who surprisingly endorsed the Republican on the promise that he would address their grievances.
That brief, fateful alliance triggered devastating miscalculations that changed America, forging patterns that still govern the nation's labor politics."

Here's a teaser from today's NPR program:

“'A free labor movement is essential to the preservation and expansion of free enterprise.' That’s what President Reagan wrote in a letter dated November 12, 1985. As president of the screen actors guild, he led a successful union strike. As governor of California, he supported the rights of government workers to unionize and bargain collectively. But in the early days of his presidency, he decided to break a strike by the air traffic controllers union. A labor historian describes the unique circumstances behind Reagan’s confrontation with PATCO and the consequences for American workers and politics."

We all know this was a battle Reagan won. Has the labor movement been crippled since that time? Seems McCartin thinks so.

This is pertinent for the newspaper industry, because the Indianapolis Guild is asking readers to carry the union's fight to the publisher and executive editor. But why not strike? I know it's "illegal" or not allowed in the contract. So what? As I've said before, if the Star could not produce a newspaper because its workers went on strike and everyone refused to cross the picket line, the entire nation would know Gannett is in big trouble.

Another factor about the strength of the Guild and why a strike is not in the cards  -- years ago, when I was active in the union, a Guild rep from Chicago visited us in Indy at our request. This guy made a point that he'd rarely heard from the Indy Guild, and he was rather surprised to even be in town at our behest. He gave us a history lesson -- that Gene Pulliam had allegedly said, "The Guild (at the Indianapolis Star) doesn't bother me at all. They've very weak."

True. The Star's Guild was never a closed shop; you did not have to join in order to work there. Yet those who were non-union members reaped the benefits of union protection, negotiations for a new contract, pay raises, all that. Still, many reporters believed sincerely they did not need the union; they trusted "Gene" and they felt they'd be better taken care of on their own merits in terms of raises, etc., rather than have the troublesome union representing them.

I never interviewed at a newspaper for a job but what I did not ask the question, "Do you have the Guild here?" My father, a newspaperman, had believed strongly in the union and the labor movement.

Unfortunately, the Star was the only paper I worked for that had the union, and it was, indeed, historically weak.

The Guild is now trying to grow a pair. Good luck to them, but prevailing against Gannett in this market seems extremely unlikely if not plain impossible.

Hoping Mr. McCartin will shed light on the troubling state of unions today, when his book is available at the library (which, incidentally, is unionized).

(Here is a little more about the book, from an Aug. 3 NPR story:

"Georgetown University historian Joseph McCartin is writing a book about the PATCO strike. Prior to PATCO, it was not acceptable for employers to replace workers on strike, even though the law gave employers the right to do so, he says.

"The PATCO strike eased those inhibitions. Major strikes plummeted from an average of 300 each year in the decades before to fewer than 30 today.

"'Any kind of worker, it seemed, was vulnerable to replacement if they went out on strike, and the psychologica impact of that, I think, was huge,' McCartin says. 'The loss of the strike as a weapon for American workers has some rather profound, long-range consequences.'"



hendy [Member] said:

There's a can of worms there, Ruth. On one tangent, the FAA was full of industry cronies, a somewhat safety-minded group but whose pockets were lined from the profitability of carriers and plane makers. Union problems in NYC-- like the huge Marriott Marquis debacle, and other frictions made standing up to PATCO important. After all, there is a federal law that allows the President to keep the rails running, and trains flying.

In another vector, the UAW and Teamsters had also been doing muscle flexing as well. Some of it was plainly boorish, but the fight with corporate management was lost a bit at a time. Reagan helped push it over the edge, but not totally. IMHO, although the FAA has a new ATC computer network, I worry about it.

How does it relate to the Guild? Let's say that content had to be fished from Gannett sources for a few weeks until a lockout occurred. Would anyone be that much the wiser? Healthy fractions of the paper are already outsourced, and content comes from lots of non-Guild sources. Would Guild members be on unemployment? Yeah, like that'll last in the current climate.

2011-09-07 23:57:59

ruthholl [Member] said:

Hendy, thank you.
Also, I hope you got the thank you from the friend who is trying to sell his house. He's gonna buy the flowers....

2011-09-08 09:51:20

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