Collision Course

Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America

By Joseph A. McCartin

Oxford University Press. 472 pp. $29.95

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Reviewed by Paul Jablow


Depending on where in the ideological theater one sits, former President Ronald Reagan's success in breaking the 1981 air-traffic controllers' strike was either a Clint Eastwood script in which the hero blows away the bad guys or an

Alien

sequel in which the scrappy humans don't stand a chance.

In the script that Joseph A. McCartin describes in Collision Course, the actors talk past one another in a way that occasionally resembles something out of Robert Altman, perhaps with dashes of Monty Python and the Coen brothers.

The Cliff Notes version goes something like this:

The Federal Aviation Administration had treated air-traffic controllers abominably for years, ignoring them and in effect bullying them into forming the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1968. After trying unsuccessfully to work through a series of Democratic and Republican administrations, PATCO wisely affiliated with a union that had ties to Reagan, former president of the Screen Actors Guild, and found a possibly sympathetic ear in his transportation secretary, Pennsylvania Republican power broker Drew Lewis.

Lewis offered the union more concessions than had ever before been on the table, but by that time, internal union politics had ratcheted expectations up so high that the controllers struck despite warnings of disaster from their union allies and Brian Flores, the federal mediator assigned to the case.

Reagan until that point had not been in "make my day" mode. But now, facing tough negotiations with Soviet Premier Mikhail S. Gorbachev and motivated as much by image considerations as labor-management philosophy, he fired all the striking controllers and ordered the hiring of permanent replacements. The American labor scene has not been the same since.

McCartin, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University, has done a thorough research job, marred only occasionally by forays into Ph.D.-thesis detail.

I found his account particularly convincing because I knew one of the actors in the drama, federal mediator Flores, from serving on a negotiating committee he headed while with the Newspaper Guild. Had Flores told me I was racing toward a cliff, I might have been inclined to put on the brakes and pull off my lemming suit.

The book also draws a vivid picture of a culture and how, as much as the realities an organization faces, that culture can determine the group's behavior. The controllers, most of them white males who had high school educations and had served in the military, are described, fairly or unfairly, as somewhat clannish, unwelcoming to the few blacks and women in their ranks, and particularly likely to follow the most militant leaders rather than moderate voices who might have saved their livelihoods.

McCartin, though, is careful to depict the strike and its aftermath as speeding a process that was already well under way, rather than bringing it about.

In the public sector, tightening municipal budgets and the specter of privatization made governments less willing to meet union wage demands. And in the private sector, where the right to strike wasn't an issue, the threat of plant closings and the movement of jobs overseas helped restrain worker militancy.

But the climate had definitely changed. McCartin sees the strike as a key factor in reenergizing the post-Reagan conservative movement and quotes the conservative commentator George Will as saying, "In a sense the '60s ended in August of 1981."

Antiunion consultants proliferated in the 1980s and beyond; strikes against the federal government ended and declined sharply in the private sector. Large employers also became much more willing to hire permanent replacements. "If the government can break the unions, then private employers can, too," the National Journal wrote at the time.

Earlier this year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker evoked Reagan and the PATCO strike in his successful move to strip the state's municipal unions of collective bargaining rights, conveniently ignoring the fact that Reagan had never dreamed of taking that step.

"While the PATCO strike did not cause American labor's decline," McCartin writes, "it acted as a powerful catalyst that magnified the effects of multiple problems that beset American unions. It did so in part because it had such a dispiriting psychological impact on workers.

"In 1981, Americans witnessed the dramatic destruction of a union on the largest public stage imaginable. They saw technologically sophisticated, seemingly indispensable workers permanently replaced by their employer. And they watched public opinion uphold this action while the AFL-CIO stood by helpless to prevent the most widely watched strikebreaking act to that point in world history."

Paul Jablow, a former Inquirer reporter and editor, freelances from Bryn Mawr. He was also a labor reporter for the Baltimore Sun.