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In 1981, Ronald Reagan showed the Russkies and American labor leaders that the U.S. was going to crack down on progressive, pro-labor organizations. Targeting labor unions, he fired the entire membership of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) - all 13,000 of them.

The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 outlaws strikes by certain government employees. In 1981, PATCO dared to strike for better pay and lower hours, citing air safety concerns due to overworked and fatigued workers. Only twelve years before that, PATCO had won a victory over the FAA and the Nixon administration with a carefully orchestrated "sickout". They won a big pay raise and recognition as a union. But Reagan, flush with neo-conservative fervor, and conflating American labor with anti-communism, destroyed the PATCO union, declaring a lifetime ban on rehiring striking controllers, and inaugurating a period of labor decline that has not abated in a generation.

Now it's 2007, and a new air traffic controller labor union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), is fighting back against a contract imposed upon it by the FAA a year ago. According to an Associated Press article yesterday:

The FAA-imposed contract cut starting pay by 30 percent, eliminated incentive pay for experienced controllers and gave managers more authority over staffing. Since last September, controllers have filed 220,000 grievances....

Brown said the agency has long known that 72 percent of its controllers become eligible to retire in the next decade. Most controllers were hired after President Ronald Reagan in 1981 fired more than 11,000 members of a predecessor union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, after it refused to end an illegal strike.

Controller Burn-out Threatens Air Safety

Meanwhile, air controllers are retiring or resigning in waves. Over 800 retirements are expected this year, while the FAA is hiring new controllers as fast as it can. The government also touts a very record low number of fatalities on commercial aircraft the past three years --.017 per 100,000 departures. For its part, NATCA cites some recent events, including six near-misses on busy runways in the past year. In Cleveland:

Operational errors — in which planes fly closer than they are supposed to — soared to 34 this fiscal year, with a month left, compared to 16 in fiscal 2006.

In Chicago, "the center has recorded 21 operation errors for the fiscal year, compared to 12 the previous year". And elsewhere:

In New York, southern California and Charlotte, N.C., on-the-job training of controllers was temporarily suspended this summer to evaluate a rash of errors....

"These errors are the calling cards of mental fatigue," said Chicago Center controller Bryan Zilonis, a union vice president. "The FAA is slowly burning out their most experienced controllers due to their inability to properly staff positions at many facilities."

You're doing a heckava job, Blakey

For her part, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey talks about billions of dollars in savings, and the introduction of a new "multi-billion-dollar NextGen plan to replace radar control with more precise satellite tracking so planes can fly closer", due to come online in ... 2013! And we know how well the government estimates time for completion for its varied projects.

Daily Kos blogger Blue Eyed Buddhist wrote about the potential corruption behind the FAA's machinations, as Blakey set up the NextGen contract with ITT only days before announcing she would leave FAA to become the President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA). Not surprisingly, ITT Corporation is a member of AIA. As Blue Eyed Buddhist pointed out:

So 9 days after she's announced as the next CEO of AIA, Blakey's agency hands out an 18-year contract worth billions of dollars to a company that indirectly employs her at over a half-million dollars a year.

Is there a congressional investigation in the works? Not that I know of. Is there an outraged spate of editorials emanating from our nation's watchdogs, the press? Again, silence, so far as I can see. It's business as usual in the land of the free hand for capital, and home of the feckless labor opposition.

The Legacy of PATCO & the Fight for an Independent Labor Movement

In 1981, Reagan threw the gauntlet down to the unions in this country. It didn't help PATCO that, along with the Teamsters, in an act of stunning stupidity, they supported Reagan for president only a year before. It also didn't help PATCO workers that, despite a lot of fiery rhetoric from union leaders at Labor Day picnics across the country, concrete action in the form of sympathy strikes or even honoring picket lines at the airports were notable by their absence. Union pilots and machinists crossed PATCO picket lines, only to suffer their own ignominious defeats in contracts and labor actions of their own in the decades that followed.

The labor movement in 2007 sits at the nadir of its influence. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In 2006, 12.0 percent of employed wage and salary workers were union members, down from 12.5 percent a year earlier.... The number of persons belonging to a union fell by 326,000 in 2006 to 15.4 million. The union membership rate has steadily declined from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available.

While there are sporadic signs of union activism and pugnacious leadership, the overall picture for labor is not pretty, as labor organizations remain mired in subservience to electoral politics and afraid of union militancy. (Is there even one Democratic presidential candidate that will call for the repeal of the anti-worker Taft-Hartley Act?) The split of the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union from the AFL-CIO back in 2005 did not bring about any new militant stance by organized labor.

It will take a new generation of union leaders with an ideology steeped in the independent action of workers before things turn around. Such an ideology could be built on the premise that those who own the means of production, those who rule the institutions of society and impose no-strike laws upon hard-working men and women, that these people have nothing politically in common with those who work for a living, who don't control anything but their minds, their hands, and their hearts. It could start with a return to real, effective labor solidarity, and the inviolability of picket lines.

The ghosts of PATCO call upon the workers of NATCA, crying out to be remembered, for all of labor to learn the lessons of 1981, and to begin the fight for a new, reinvigorated, and powerful labor movement.

Also posted at Invictus and Progressive Historians

Originally posted to Valtin on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 02:06 PM PDT.


Should the next Democratic nominee for president call for repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar for Labor Day (17+ / 0-)

    Please, no sweet relish. Mustard, onions, ketchup, and a hefty dose of labor gusto.

  •  PATCO-Reagan (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JDPITALIA, Valtin, Cartoon Peril

    Some of my worst personal fights happened during that strike.  Never having been a union member, it was absolutely clear to me that this was the first frontal assualt on the spirit if not the legislation of the New Deal.

    Let's just say it didn't work our well for me or PATCO.

    What FDR giveth; GWB taketh away.

    by Marie on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 02:14:31 PM PDT

    •  For me, too (6+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Marie, ripzaw, shirah, Tinfoil Hat, chigh, sable

      I still have my Support PATCO button from those days. For a guy then still in his mid-20s, I just couldn't understand why labor wasn't doing more to support this crucial fight. If I, then a relatively unsophisticated union member (printing trades), could see what this fight with the Reagan administration was all about, why couldn't my union leadership?

      What I didn't realize then was how rotten the union bureaucratic apparatus had become. PATCO turned me towards then-Marxist militancy. For millions more, I'm afraid, defeat did what it usually does: demoralizes and immobilizes.

      Even the powerful pro-Democratic faction here at Daily Kos don't understand, I believe, how crucial the PATCO fight was for even the future of American electoral politics, as the GOP won the hearts and minds of big capital by showing it had the cojones to take on public employee unions and smash them.

      When are we going to fight back???

      •  Connecting the dots (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        shirah, Valtin

        is difficult for most people.  It's easier just to go to work, do the chores and then have fun.  In general Americans really don't believe that "tomorrow we may all die."  Can't fathom how fragile an industrial/high-tech society can be.  That may have played a role in why 9/11 hit so many so hard.  Whereas those that understood the interconnectness of the world, saw it not as some world changing event but as another warning that we must do better.

        By 1981 rank and file union members has lost the ability to appreciate the true significance of unions.  Of course that was preceded by over a decade of psychological disengagement from unions which allowed the corruption and mismanagement to rush in and fill the vacuum.

        Sad to say we're long past the point where the clock could have been turned back.  We'll only rediscover the lessons we should have learned seventy years ago when conditions in our everyday lives reach the deplorable stage.  Have no idea if that will be years or decades from now (people have a remarkable ability to adapt to slowly deteriorating conditions - the frog in the pot of water syndrome).

        What FDR giveth; GWB taketh away.

        by Marie on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 02:32:59 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  The rot (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ripzaw, shirah, Valtin

        What I didn't realize then was how rotten the union bureaucratic apparatus had become.

        I was only 12 or 13 at the time, but it seems to me that Reagan didn't cause the rot -- he just took advantage of it.  PATCO revealed the weakness of the American working class, and boosted the morale of the elite class, but we've got to make sure we understand the direction of the causality here:  the weakness of American business unionism caused the PATCO disaster, not the other way around.

        "Run, comrade, the old world is behind you!" -- Situationist graffito, 1968

        by Pesto on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 08:31:38 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I agree with you (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          ripzaw, shirah

          Perhaps my writing was too opaque, but it was the weakness of American business unionism, exactly, which had torn the heart out of labor, and left it defenseless against Reagan's political assault.

          Of course, the defeat DID make things more difficult. Also, I would note that the apolitical business unionism (and its cousins, pro-government unionism and company unionism) had a reciprocal relationship with anti-labor government law making, just as it does with extra-legal violence by the employer. The latter is exemplified by the hired scabs and thugs, the often armed, hired by big companies to defend their "property" during a strike -- and organized more often to attack picket lines and pick off militant unionists.

          •  A frienf of mine has a theory (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            that you can accurately guess the corruption of any union as the inverse of its radicalism. True believers can be naive, wrong, and sometimes even dangerous, but they very seldom are satisfied with petty graft as a goal.

            -4.75, -5.08 Be yourself. Imitation is suicide. -Andre Gide

            by ripzaw on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 09:49:39 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  Old Ronnie really endeared himself to neo-cons (0+ / 0-)

      back then, guess he didn't realize they were a bunch of Trotskyite tin-plate dictators.  

      "Our knobs go up to 11."

      by Cartoon Peril on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 10:18:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Just his kind of people (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Valtin, Cartoon Peril

        Ole Ronnie was too ga-ga to realize much of anything by the time he got to the WH.  The neo-cons are nothing more than a re-imagining of the Goldwater wing of the GOP and Ronnie was out there in '64 on the stump for Barry.  One change since then is the prominence of Zionists in the neo-con group.  Goldwater's father was Jewish but not his mother; so, Barry was not Jewish and was raised Episcopalian.

        What FDR giveth; GWB taketh away.

        by Marie on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 11:08:36 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Who is "Trotskyite"? (0+ / 0-)

        The Farrell Dobb wing of the Teamsters, who helped create the first national over-the-road contract for truckers, and were associated with the Socialist Workers Party?

        Or the James Burnham wing of the same SWP, who split from the Trotskyists in 1939, on the eve of World War II, and started turning to the right, until they arrived at neo-con territory?

        What is the point, anyway, of those of you who like to label the neo-cons "Trotskyite"? They are not Marxists of any stripe, in fact, are quite the opposite.

        The argument from origins is a well-known fallacy of logic, known as the genetic fallacy. One can do better than rely on such specious argumentation.

  •  Still my dad's favorite Reagan moment (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    He's an odd political fellow, more libertarian than anything else. Not at all a fan of Reagan, mostly for the budget-busting and pretending that invading Grenada somehow made up for pulling out of Lebanon, but he still speaks fondly if you bring it up about how this was the moment he knew Reagan was going to "take on the Unions."

    The only people I know who aren't avid union-busters are liberal politicos and activists. I don't know what to make of that.

    -4.75, -5.08 Be yourself. Imitation is suicide. -Andre Gide

    by ripzaw on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 03:16:59 PM PDT

    •  Why anti-unionism? (0+ / 0-)

      The only people I know who aren't avid union-busters are liberal politicos and activists. I don't know what to make of that.

      The anti-union atmosphere in this country is hard to gauge, twisted as it is by the attitudes and reporting of big capital news media.

      I think it's fair to say that many still believe that one can be a success and make a lot of money in this country by the sweat of one's brow, and by clever financial finangling.

      Buy cheap, sell high should be the motto of the USA. But the real historical forces behind capitalism can be read in the tea leaves of an ever-deepening financial crisis and a bellicose, imperialistic foreign policy that threatens the very stability of the nation.

      Everyone loves a winner, and labor has been the loser so long, it's easy to read the average American's passive anti-unionism as a reaction to the failure of labor to pose a true pole of opposition to the rule of the bosses.

      Unionism grew by leaps and bounds after the victories of many hard-fought battles by labor in the 1930s-1950s. Even during World War II -- the years of the "no-strike pledge" of the AFL and CIO, backed by the then pro-American patriotism of the Communist Party USA -- the number of hours lost to strikes in the U.S. were greater than at any other time in American history. (See Statistical Abstract of the USA). -- It's this kind of militancy that wins adherents, not Labor Day picnics with political candidates, followed by at best limp support for labor causes in the mostly anti-union Congress.

      •  It's kind of hard to see (0+ / 0-)

        how going on strike during World War II gains you converts. Mind, I know nothing about the strikes, so I can't speak for or against them. But from a PR standpoint, it sounds like the kind of thing that would get a union universally condemned as "working for the enemy".

        -4.75, -5.08 Be yourself. Imitation is suicide. -Andre Gide

        by ripzaw on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 06:19:16 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  The union leadership tried to stop the strikes (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Cartoon Peril

          But, with the exception of the United Mine Workers, who struck during World War II, wildcat strikes and labor actions could not be stopped.

          The universal belief today that the war was popular was not completely true at the time. The government played the fascist card very heavily, even as it gave support to the fascists earlier (such as being "neutral" as the democratic government of Spain was slaughtered by the Hitler-backed Falange).

          On the assembly line, or in the hell-hole mines, or in innumerable sweatshops across the land, the workers faced speedup, cutbacks, and harsh working conditions, while the bosses raked in the profits... tremendous profits. It was not unpatriotic to do so. So why was it unpatriotic for the workers to fight for their rights and decent working conditions.

          •  I meant (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Cartoon Peril

            I wrote:

            The government played the fascist card very heavily, even as it gave support to the fascists earlier...

            I meant to write:

            The government played the anti-fascist card very heavily, the better to win support among progressives and the working class, even as it gave support to the fascists earlier...

            This is what happens when your fingers type slower than your mind thinks.

  •  De-regulation of the airline industry and (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shirah, Valtin, Cartoon Peril, sable

    attacks on unions helped bring about the rape of union pension funds, one more reason to not like racist, Republican buffoon, Ronnie Rayguns. (takes me back).

    A consistent theme in the 'ownership' society's rhetoric is that individuals do not need to join together to increase the economic power they wield when negotiating with corporations or the state.

    False, of course. However, as we can see, when greed, self-interest, gluttony and avarice are held-up as virtues, things are bound to go sour.

    Happy Labor Day.

    Unite, organize, fight!

  •  Here's one problem with Taft-Hartley: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    no "sympathy strikes."  Means if I think somebody in industry X is getting a bad deal, I can't organize a strike in industry Y.  

    Capital, on the other hand, is free to flit from industry to industry, fire workers one place (say, in the U.S.) and hire them someplace else, maybe with a few less rights for workers, say, oh, the People's Republic of China.

    There are many, many other problems with Taft-Hartley, the bottom line of which is that capital is king, labor is its servant.

    "Our knobs go up to 11."

    by Cartoon Peril on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 10:17:30 PM PDT

  •  I still find it ironic that they re named (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Washington National - Reagan Washington National Airport.

    They do not serve the pleasure of the president. They serve justice. It's time all DOJ employees were reminded of that fact. - J. Radack

    by sailmaker on Mon Sep 03, 2007 at 11:03:14 PM PDT

  •  PATCO -NATCA (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The amazing thing is just how quickly the replacement air traffic controllers saw that everything PATCO said was a problem WAS a problem. They got organized.

    More people should.

  •  you nailed it valtin (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    my union household has always pegged the PATCO firings as the first lethal shot to labor.
    of course by then, the writing was on the wall for the line workers of the auto industry. too bad so many were taken by Ronnie's swagger, though sometimes I feel it serves them right for voting republican. the same w/ WalMart workers, just keep voting for your overlords, I'm sure they'll throw you a scrap of a bone someday.

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