(Executive Office of the President)
On Wednesday, diarist
I went on strike...
and I'm still on strike, 30 years later.
Hillbrook green was an air traffic controller 30 years ago, when air traffic controllers went on strike and Ronald Reagan broke their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (Patco). Patco had actually endorsed Reagan in his presidential run. But as hillbrook green continues:
Ronnie appointed a guy named Drew Lewis to be Transportation Secretary. Drew and other people in the Administration were Republicans, after all, and they decided that they really didn't want to negotiate a new contract. As a matter of fact Drew and his buddies didn't like unions at all and they came up with a plan that became a blueprint for union-busting ever since.
After months of negotiation, Patco went on strike—which was illegal, but not unprecedented. What was unprecedented was the response: Exactly 30 years ago, Reagan had all of the striking workers fired and barred for life from working for the federal government. And just like that, he set a precedent, one that has shaped our nation's politics and attitudes toward workers since.
Joseph McCartin writes in the New York Times that:
Workers in the private sector had used the strike as a tool of leverage in labor-management conflicts between World War II and 1981, repeatedly withholding their work to win fairer treatment from recalcitrant employers. But after Patco, that weapon was largely lost. Reagan’s unprecedented dismissal of skilled strikers encouraged private employers to do likewise. Phelps Dodge and International Paper were among the companies that imitated Reagan by replacing strikers rather than negotiating with them. Many other employers followed suit.
The president of the United States broke a union, and his party has not looked back:
In the spring, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin invoked Reagan’s handling of Patco as he prepared to “change history” by stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights in a party-line vote. “I’m not negotiating,” Mr. Walker said. By then the world had seemingly forgotten that unlike Mr. Walker, Reagan had not challenged public employees’ right to bargain — only their right to strike.
Reagan's party has become a party that would shut down the FAA—save, ironically, for air traffic controllers—in order to make it all but impossible for private sector workers to unionize. It's all very well to talk about how this isn't what Reagan would have wanted; on paper, maybe it's not. But as we know, Republicans don't really care what Reagan would have wanted. And in the end, actions like an unprecedented mass firing of more than 11,000 people speak a little louder than Reagan's general statements of support without actions to back them.
Thirty years later, Reagan's breaking of Patco continues to shape not just how employers treat unions but how they treat all employees: with the expectation that any worker can be broken and that that is the natural response to any challenge to the employer's total power and domination. That is a mindset that's been absorbed by all too many working people, that they can't or shouldn't fight back, that if you fight back you deserve any abuse that comes your way and that the government cannot, should not, be expected to intervene meaningfully on behalf of workers short of the most blatant disregard for safety leading to a massive public tragedy. We see it when the National Labor Relations Board does its job by bringing a complaint against Boeing for moving jobs in retaliation for workers exercising their legal rights and House Republicans respond by pushing a bill that would make it impossible for the NLRB to actually do anything to punish employers for illegal actions. Or when the NLRB proposes a rule to modernize and streamline union elections in very modest ways and the Chamber of Commerce says well, of course we would sue to prevent this. We see it every time someone hears about a blue-collar job with the kind of pay and benefits that would have been taken for granted a generation ago and responds by saying that the job is overpaid and the worker undeserving rather than by wondering why a good blue-collar job is such a rarity these days. Or the flip side of the same thought, when people look at a job with markedly worse pay and benefits than the same job would have drawn a generation ago, and think not just "I wish I could get a job that good," but "that's the best job we should expect." We see it in income stagnation not just for blue-collar workers but for everyone outside the top one or two percent.
The breaking of Patco didn't come out of nowhere, of course; rather, it cemented a trend that had been fragile to that point. Today, in the pushback against Scott Walker's budget and Ohio's SB 5, we could have the beginnings of such a fragile trend, a movement that would grow eventually to the point where a single politician could with one display of power alter the balance toward workers. But at the same time we have the national economic and political discourse that led to the debt ceiling deal and has put everything from food stamps to Medicare on the table for cuts. Power is aligned on the side of the post-Patco economy. The question is whether we—people who work for a living, the non-wealthy, those whose influence is measured in votes and letters to Congress rather than lobbyists—can get out of the post-Patco mindset and believe that we deserve better than stagnating wages and insecure lives and believe that fighting back is the right thing to do.
Coda: More than 45,000 Verizon workers are now on strike, fighting a host of concessions demanded by management and fighting for their middle-class jobs to stay middle-class jobs.
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