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The defeat of PATCO:
Signal of the employers' offensive

September 8, 2006 | Page 8

ELIZABETH SCHULTE tells the story of a strike 25 years ago that marked a turning point--for the worse--for the U.S. labor movement.

IN JUST five small letters, one event encapsulates the employers' offensive of the 1980s--PATCO. Twenty-five years ago, some 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO, were on strike, primarily for safe working conditions.

Air traffic controllers have one of the most stressful jobs in the world, resulting in workers suffering any number of debilitating illnesses--from ulcers to heart conditions to hypertension and alcoholism. For that reason, almost 90 percent of controllers at the time were forced to leave before retirement age, some 40 percent taking disability leave.

In 1981, U.S. air traffic controllers were the only ones in the world to work 40 hours a week, in eight-hour shifts, with up to 20 hours of mandatory overtime tacked on the average week.

So among PATCO's main demands was a 32-hour workweek--in addition to updated computer equipment, improved staffing and retirement after 20 years of service. Controllers, whose starting wages were $15,000 a year, were also asking for a $10,000 pay increase.

What else to read

Some of Socialist Worker's original coverage of the PATCO strike is part of a collection of articles published as a special feature when SW turned 25. See "Greatest Hits of Socialist Worker.”;

Sharon Smith's new book Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States sets out the historical backdrop of the U.S. workers' movement and documents the story of the PATCO strike and the employers' offensive that followed, through to the present day.


The year of the PATCO strike, 1981, was a year of economic recession. Unemployment was on the rise and the number of manufacturing jobs on the decline, as workers' wages stagnated or fell.

But not everyone was suffering. It was the beginning of what would be known as the "looting decade"--with the federal government doling out millions in corporate tax breaks, amid any number of corporate scandals, like the savings and loan debacle.

"By the end of the 1980s, the U.S. had achieved the dubious status as the most unequal society among Western industrial countries," writes Sharon Smith in Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. "An end-of-decade report on salaries in 10 leading companies showed that while the average CEO earned 34 times more than his employees in the mid-1970s, he earned 110 times more by the late 1980s."

But the assault on workers' living standards that is the hallmark of the era began well before Ronald "Bedtime for Bonzo" Reagan arrived in the White House. The administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter began the assault.

It was Carter who began deregulation of the airlines and trucking industries, freeing them from important workers' safety or environmental regulations. And under Carter, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set up the "management strike contingency force"--a scabbing operation--12 months before the controllers' contract was due to expire. The plan would keep air traffic going even if the controllers struck, and break the union in the process.

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THE CRUSHING of the PATCO union was part of a strategy of redefining the terms of U.S. labor relations--gone, American bosses hoped, would be the days of offensive strikes that won better wage and benefits. This was a long-term plan, and a bipartisan one.

In 1980, PATCO had even diverged from the unions' usual endorsement of the Democrats and supported Reagan for president.

In a letter, Reagan promised PATCO President Robert Poli, "I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety. I pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the president and the air traffic controllers."

Within four hours of controllers calling their walkout on August 2, 1981, Reagan announced that they would be fired if they didn't return to work in 48 hours.

At the press conference announcing this threat, Reagan invoked his previous career as a union movie actor: "I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike. Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union...But we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government's reason for being."

While PATCO represented a relatively small number of workers, the Reagan administration made crushing the union a high priority.

"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," Ed Zacovic of PATCO's Local 203 in Oberlin, Ohio, told Socialist Worker at the time. "We questioned everything they said, and they didn't like it. They didn't like us talking about a strike, and they thought that if they can hold us down, they'll hold down all the workers in the federal sector."

Reagan called for hundreds of controllers to be arrested and jailed, fired some 11,500 workers and banned them for life from air traffic control. This left just 3,400 experienced controllers on the job, a dangerously low number--but a situation that the Reagan administration was willing to risk in order to teach PATCO a lesson.

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THE BOSSES and the government were ready to fight. The question was whether the union movement was.

For their part, PATCO workers were solid. On the first day of the action--an illegal strike--85 percent of the union controllers walked out. And even after the president's threat to fire them, only about 900 workers crossed the line.

But to win, the controllers were going to need the solidarity of the whole union movement. Although PATCO wasn't an AFL-CIO union, the federation's leaders announced support for striking controllersBut their backing amounted to nothing more than words, if that.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland denounced the government's attack on PATCO in public, but he also sent a letter to AFL-CIO affiliates, warning them against any strike actions in solidarity. "I personally do not think that the trade union movement should undertake anything that would represent punishing, injuring or inconveniencing the public at large for the sins or the transgressions of the Reagan administration," Kirkland wrote.

William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), whose tens of thousands of members serviced planes in airports across the country, refused to call out IAM members, citing the union's no-strike clause with the airlines.

Even at the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Day rally in Washington, with half a million workers in attendance just weeks after the controllers' strike had begun, hardly a word was said about PATCO. Union leaders missed their opportunity to take on union-busters in the White House, and instead fell back on their favorite strategy--pouring on their support for the Democrats from the podium.

This isn't to say that there was no solidarity. Controllers in Canada walked out for a short time in solidarity with the PATCO strikers before they were threatened with fines and suspensions. And the huge turnout at the Washington rally was one example of the sentiment that existed among workers to take on Corporate America.

But in the end, the controllers put up a fight--but were left to fight alone. After all the remaining union members were fired and banned from controlling, the union was decertified in October.

Years of a strategy of negotiating and partnering with management and lobbying Democrats meant that the labor movement was unprepared for the kind of fight that would have been necessary to help PATCO take on Reagan.

Similarly, the unions would prove to be powerless against the pounding the bosses gave workers in the years to come. In 1983, one-third of workers with new contracts had agreed to wage cuts. By 1987, three-quarters of contracts covering 1,000 workers or more included concessions. U.S. bosses went on an aggressive attack against wages and union rights, for instance, repeatedly invoking their right--technically legal, but little used to this point--to permanently replace strikers to break unions.

With the exception of a few courageous but bitter battles, such as the 1985 P-9 strike at Hormel meatpacking in Austin, Minn., union leaders avoided fights with Corporate America. By 1987, strike levels fell to the lowest number since the unions' no-strike pledge during the Second World War. And while union membership numbers had been on the decline for decades, they went into a tailspin in the 1980s. By 1989, union membership had dropped to 16 percent of the workforce.

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WITH PATCO, the Reagan administration sent a message to the rest of the labor movement--take on the bosses, and you will be crushed. But there's a different lesson that should be taken from the PATCO strike--solidarity is key.

The potential existed to build powerful support for the PATCO strike throughout the labor movement. For many workers, the strike exposed the viciousness of U.S. bosses--who in the case of PATCO was the federal government. The government was clearly willing to risk not only the health and safety of workers, but the lives of airline passengers in the pursuit of busting the union.

As Ed Zacovic said 25 years ago, "I think that's the biggest problem--that 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."

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