Turning Point Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America

By Joseph A. McCartin
Oxford University Press, 2011

Reviewed by Wade Rathke


When we started an independent union with the United Labor Unions thirty years ago (at the dawn of the Reagan administration), my fellow organizers and I were most captivated by the concept of strikes  as tactical organizing weapons. We were energized and excited about Local 1199’s success at reviving the use of “recognition strikes” to short-circuit the grueling labor board election process and the  increasingly harsh whip hand of management-side labor lawyers.

I can still vividly remember those days in the fall of 1980 when our contract cafeteria workers at Tulane University’s student center shut down the noon lunch hour rush with a rally to demand  recognition: Union Now—Lunch Later! Months later, while bargaining with Professional Food Management, I realized to my horror that our enthusiasm, militancy, and, yes, ignorance could have led to the firing of every one of those workers who were clearly engaged in an unprotected  strike, whether we realized it or not. Those memories roared back painfully as I read about the missteps and misjudgments of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organizational (PATCO) leadership that Georgetown University labor historian Joseph A. McCartin documents  excruciatingly in his new book about the PATCO strike, Collision Course.

At the time, union organizers all had convenient ways to rationalize what we were reading and hearing about the PATCO debacle. In 1980, PATCO had endorsed Reagan for president. Who did that but the Teamsters or the Seafarers or other unions out of whack and in trouble? Somehow, the air traffic controllers thought they had a deal with Reagan. Didn’t they realize he was rabidly anti-union, despite having been the only former union leader ever elected president? Weren’t they federal employees? Did they even have the right to strike? The federal sector was one of the few areas where both sides were still supposed to come to a contract. All of these rationalizations were excellent forms of denial, and it is to McCartin’s credit— and our peril—that he so meticulously researches the history of PATCO and the consequences of the strike, and turns much of what we might have thought (or hoped) topsy-turvy, leaving us to rethink what we thought we knew about the whole affair. Labor history is a tough field to plow during an era of labor’s decline. This is not the era of David Brody, Irving Bernstein, Melvyn Dubofsky, or Philip Foner, or even the great, iconoclastic, and recently departed David Montgomery. Nor is now the time when interest or egotism encourages each international union to contract for its own “history” along the lines of the shelf of books I have on the Carpenters, Hotel Workers, Hospital Workers, and others. For those of us who like our labor history inspiring, hopeful, and even exciting, it is unsettling to read McCartin’s work on PATCO, whose short history from 1960 until the early 1980s strike, and terrible dénouement, lacks any heroic period at all. Collision Course is a subtle warning that the coming generation of labor historians—if there is one—will be sober and surgical in its analysis and what it writes may not be pretty to read, especially for those of us who worked in these vineyards as organizers, leaders, or members of the allied trades. McCartin has seized on a rare opportunity to grab the strike’s living witnesses and vividly document the relative rise and rapid demise of a union, within a small thirty-year window.

No one emerges in the way one would have hoped. McCartin suggests that PATCO did not get a bad deal from the Reaganites, as they came into power after President Jimmy Carter, as much as PATCO got caught overreaching and its controversial endorsement of Reagan was embedded in a classic failure to achieve a “meeting of the minds.” In a telling passage, McCartin reveals the heart of the dilemma and its repercussions.

PATCO’s leaders endorsed Reagan in the belief that his election provided the only plausible scenario for gaining an acceptable contract in 1981, the only available avenue for achieving goals they had long sought but were unable to achieve on their own. Yet the way that endorsement was proffered and secured actually increased the likelihood of a disastrous strike. Because each side saw the other as an instrumentality that could help it attain something it desperately desired—for the Reagan campaign it was a symbolically important labor ally and for PATCO it was a president who could help it make a breakthrough at the bargaining table—each side had an interest in believing what it wanted to believe about the nature of their bargain. Without realizing it, the Reagan campaign gave PATCO leaders both implicit permission and an incentive to foster soaring expectations among rank-and-file controllers and activists—expectations that would ultimately prove impossible to satisfy at the bargaining table. By colluding in each other’s fantasies, the two sides together had created a dangerous situation that would soon alter the course of American labor relations.

In fact, Reagan himself does not emerge from McCartin’s review as particularly antiunion and certainly not as rabid as what we see now from the Republicans evoking his name and genuflecting before the PATCO legend. Rather, the story involves an inside power struggle that produced an inexperienced, but angry, leadership that just could not hold the pieces together and, in the classic strike lesson, found that the easiest part is going out on strike, and the hardest part is being able to get back into work again.

McCartin has a knack for inserting drama and tension in Collison Course. His description of the herculean efforts PATCO undertook to rid itself of famous trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey is a wonderful and superbly handled tale, and his “Dead Reckoning” chapter on the bargaining before the strike (and “Trading Paint” chapter on the final preparations leading to the strike) makes you feel, unfortunately, like you were there, and  may seem especially familiar if you have been in similar situations yourself. His excellent first book, Labor’s Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-21, examined the pressure politics and policy tensions between the government, workers, and unions around the war effort which he called the “origin of  modern labor relations.” In Collision Course, he presents PATCO as “the strike that changed America,” and it’s arguably PATCO that could be seen instead as the “origin of modern labor  relations.” But, as even McCartin argues, PATCO may not be able to hold that title. He notes that by  1980 strike activity was already experiencing huge declines which have only accelerated over the last three decades. The romance might have remained, but the critical edge has been lost. The federal sector represents both a benchmark and a backwater for those working in labor relations—it is hardly considered the cutting edge of class conflict. Thirty thousand workers were not insignificant, but they were  certainly not at the heart of the economy, as the Reagan administration quickly taught us, despite the importance of the airline industry. Furthermore, even after PATCO there was significant growth and increased density in public sector unionism, especially compared to private sector union density. This is quibbling, though, since McCartin makes the case that the strike’s  importance is widely recognized. It cost more than $2 billion, wrecked air traffic control training and  eradicated hard earned experience for a decade, and left a bad taste that sticks in the mouths of union  members, leaders, and organizers to this very day.

One reads Collision Course looking for lessons that could help today’s public employees whose  unions are increasingly targeted and under fire in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere. The reader, organizer, and activist will not find that search rewarded, and it is certainly not McCartin’s—or any historian’s—charge to provide us with advanced adult education. The situations are simply different. Now, as we have long predicted—yet somehow still have not expected—we are under wholesale  attack in what we thought were some of the remaining bastions of our strength.

Are these lessons? Are there solutions? I’m not sure there are.

The PATCO strike turned so tragically on miscalculations, miscommunications, and isunderstandings. Labor history is full of such missteps, and McCartin skillfully points out how disturbingly and mundanely fragile our organizations and institutions really are. I fear we will read many books like Collision Course that are devastatingly accurate in its documentation of our inability to change course and steer past shoals that were increasingly clear to any who were willing to look.

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