Winging It: The Battle Between Reagan and PATCO

Winging It: The Battle Between Reagan and PATCO

Winging It: The Battle Between Reagan and PATCO

The true economic legacy of the Reagan years is not tax cuts but union busting.


The conservative canonization of Ronald Reagan as the patron saint of the tax cut has always been a vexed rite. For one thing, Reagan actually raised taxes in 1982, when the country was sunk in a grim recession and the president’s economic advisers were sounding alarms over the gaping hole created in the federal budget by his 1981 package of tax cuts. Regardless of what has recently been said about the Gipper on the GOP hustings, the awkward truth for conservatives is that he increased taxes to fund government spending, just as Keynesians are supposed to do.

The true economic legacy of the Reagan years is an uglier practice: unionbusting, of the most brutal variety. To this day, commentators hail Reagan’s handling of the 1981 strike staged by the nation’s air traffic controllers as the defining moment of his fledgling presidency. Not only did the sudden dissolution of the strike—and the controllers’ union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization—seal the reputation of our first post–New Deal president as a bare-knuckles foe of liberalism’s most influential single constituency, organized labor; the PATCO episode also became mythologized as the landmark case of Reagan’s signature leadership style, an instinctive commitment to “stand firm and stand for the truth,” as GOP presidential candidate and Reagan disciple Newt Gingrich rhapsodized in a primary debate last year.

But like most political decisions, Reagan’s sacking of PATCO wasn’t so much a pure expression of composure and principle as it was the unanticipated outcome of a convergence of far messier, contingent and nonideological forces. Joseph McCartin, a professor of US history at Georgetown University, patiently lays out the full background and aftermath of the PATCO tragedy in Collision Course, an absorbing, detailed and shrewdly observed chronicle of the strike and PATCO’s unlikely rise and fall.

The first of the saga’s many related ironies is that the nation’s air traffic controllers never enjoyed the legal right to bargain collectively with their employers in the government, let alone to stage a mass walkout from their posts. Government employees had the right to form unions only within tightly circumscribed limits, which had been laid out in Executive Order 10988, signed by John F. Kennedy in 1962. As McCartin notes, Kennedy’s order was a rear-guard action, urged on him by advisers who “feared that Congress might enact a bill that gave workers too many rights and unions too much power”—a strategic calculation that, viewed in the resolutely corporate cast of Congressional politics circa 2012, sounds like a transmission from a faraway galaxy. Beyond acknowledging that federal workers could use union representatives to air grievances about working conditions, the order barred unions from negotiating wages and hours, and failed to establish an agency to oversee and arbitrate even the narrow sphere of grievances employees were permitted to raise. Kennedy’s labor secretary Arthur Goldberg and domestic adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan pushed hard for the order to include provisions for an official negotiating framework to handle union demands; as Moynihan argued at the time, “if we do not grant this to the unions, in lieu of the right to strike, it is to be doubted that we will accomplish much. Indeed, unless we provide some way out of deadlocked negotiations, it would seem rather questionable to start down this road at all.”

Weak though it proved to be in its final incarnation, Executive Order 10988 was nonetheless a breakthrough. The battle over collective bargaining rights for government employees had been deadlocked for a quarter-century or so before Kennedy’s order. Even FDR, who in 1935 had signed the landmark Wagner Act into law, extending full collective bargaining rights to private sector workers, thought it “unthinkable and intolerable” that federal employees might one day be permitted to strike for improved wages, hours and working conditions. FDR’s hardline stance harked back to the 1919 Boston police strike, which had been viciously suppressed by then–Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, who prevailed by appealing to the civil servants’ higher calling of preserving public safety. But by the height of the cold war, the power dynamics between government and labor had shifted. With the government workforce and the union movement both expanding dramatically, it seemed likely that some bargaining agent would eventually advocate on behalf of federal workers, and the Kennedy administration sought mainly to ensure that the executive branch could steer negotiations away from the volatile, strike-stoking issues of wages and hours. Yet over the longer term, the formal endorsement of a mostly toothless right to unionization would serve inadvertently to promote greater union militancy among the federal workforce.

* * *

Another signal irony of the PATCO saga was that the managerial-minded air traffic controllers turned out to be the most energetic vanguard in the struggle for genuine collective bargaining rights. Controllers had quickly recognized the need to exert greater supervision of their work routines. In 1960, two years before the Kennedy order, a midair collision over New York City involving two TWA and United commercial aircraft had claimed 134 lives, then the deadliest aviation accident in US history. A Federal Aviation Administration inquiry into the crash concluded that it principally resulted from pilot error, but controllers in the Hangar 11 facility handling New York air traffic knew that systemic, rather than individual, flaws in air traffic management lay behind the disaster, and they were distressed by the scale of the FAA’s indifference to such issues. Jack Maher, a Hangar 11 controller who would launch the controllers’ first union drive, concluded that the FAA’s inquiry meant that the agency tasked with managing air traffic operations was, as McCartin writes, “uninterested in reforming” procedures or upgrading equipment. Even more, Maher “was shocked to learn that the FAA’s top officials did not even understand the daily workings of the system over which they presided. The agency’s regional officials seemed to know nothing about Hangar 11’s operations, controllers’ procedures, or equipment…. The system was getting worse, yet the people in charge did not understand it enough to know that anything was wrong, let alone how to fix it. Maher decided then that ‘the emperor had no clothes.’”

Appalled by the government’s ignorance and unresponsiveness, the controllers realized that they needed to organize, simply for the sake of preserving the baseline safety standards they were expected to uphold. But talk of workplace solidarity didn’t come naturally to controllers. The vast majority of them had learned their craft in the military, and therefore placed a premium on hierarchical order along with individual heroics on the job. Combined with the comparatively high pay grades available to senior controllers in the federal civil service system, the military background of most controllers meant that they weren’t likely to be found belting out “Joe Hill” at any nearby barricades.

In other respects, though, the personal backgrounds of many controllers softened their ambivalence about calls for unionization. Like many modern soldiers, and especially those swept up in the Vietnam-era draft, they came from blue-collar backgrounds, with union affiliations stretching back across generations. Whereas Jack Maher, for instance, was a former marine, his uncle was an official with a Michigan plumbers’ union local; Maher’s chief lieutenant, Mike Rock—later to be known as “Strike Mike” for his ready recourse to the threat of a walkout—was the nephew of a leader of a tile-setters’ local. “All the guys wanted to do something,” Maher recalled, and “the only thing we saw is to organize in some fashion.” Maher and other controllers made for a curious flowering of activism in the Summer of Love. “In their cultural styles, politics, and middle-class aspirations, the controllers scarcely resembled 1960s radicals,” McCartin writes. “Yet they shared in common with other disaffected Americans of those years a distaste for hypocritical, inflexible authority structures, and a willingness to challenge them.”

That outlook only grew more confrontational as the controllers continued to operate within the strictures of Executive Order 10988. In 1968, with an unlikely assist from celebrity defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, whom Rock had recruited to the controllers’ cause after he’d guided Bailey’s Lear jet into LaGuardia, the controllers officially launched their proto-union, PATCO. Because the language of Kennedy’s order forbade any dues-collecting organization within the federal system from including managers in its ranks, the PATCO leadership embraced the model of classic labor-management union conflict. In turn, because FAA managers tended to be drawn from controllers’ ranks, making the labor-management divide more permeable than in other workplaces, the language of the executive order inadvertently encouraged a greater degree of workplace solidarity in an otherwise ambivalent pool of union recruits.

* * *

PATCO gained credibility among its membership by scoring an instant, high-profile victory. For some time, controllers had been pushing the FAA to expand their ranks and thereby reduce the volume of mandatory overtime they were forced to work. From 1967 through mid-1968, controllers more than doubled their weekly overtime hours, from 8,903 to 21,460. Letters and petitions to the FAA proved fruitless, and so PATCO, forbidden by law to stage a strike, coordinated a nationwide work slowdown, something a group charged with modulating the flow of air traffic found exceedingly easy to do.

Bailey handled the PR side of the initiative, dubbed Operation Air Safety. In an appearance on the Tonight Show—Johnny Carson, an old friend of the lawyer, served as an honorary member of the PATCO board—Bailey played up the controllers’ plight, while also reassuring skittish travelers that the gatekeepers of air traffic would never go on strike. Still, he explained, a work slowdown strategy would produce dramatic results: “If they just followed regulations instead of cutting corners to get more airplanes in—just follow regulations—Kennedy, O’Hare, and L.A. would drop traffic by 50 percent.” When Carson asked, “Why don’t they do it?” Bailey replied, “I think they may at some point.” As McCartin dryly notes, “the union’s first job action was forecast on a late-night comedy show.”

Operation Air Safety went off pretty much as Bailey had predicted. At the end of a nearly two-month slowdown, PATCO had not only forced air carriers and the FAA to cut back on mandatory overtime but also won the right for the FAA to automatically deduct union dues from controllers’ paychecks—a huge financial boon for PATCO. In addition to the material gains the strike had won, it set an equally impressive precedent for federal employees; as McCartin stresses, it was “the first time federal workers had used a job action to force agency leaders to sit down with their representatives in Washington.”

Emboldened by its early success, PATCO soon overplayed its bargaining hand, badly. During a spring 1970 action known as the “Easter Uprising,” PATCO leaders orchestrated a mass sickout to protest disciplinary measures the FAA had taken against the union over a similar recent work action. The reprisals had been swift. FAA officials approved the involuntary transfer of several PATCO leaders to dead-end positions in a Baton Rouge facility, while threatening to suspend and fire other militant PATCO hands. Most crucial, the agency rescinded the dues-checkoff provision the union had won in Operation Air Safety.

The interested parties understood that the FAA’s retaliatory actions were all but certain to provoke a larger confrontation. FAA officials began to draft contingency plans to replace absent controllers in the event of a future work stoppage or slowdown, while PATCO leaders set about planning the spring sickout. The action, as McCartin notes, was another landmark in government-labor relations—in substance, if not strictly in name, “the first centrally planned national strike against the federal government.” With controller absences running as high as 90 percent in some facilities, flight delays for travelers stretched across many frustrating hours. When one Chicago to Phoenix flight was delayed indefinitely at O’Hare, angry passengers stormed the ticket counter, and a few rushed onto the tarmac to lie down in front of another aircraft’s wheels until they were assigned a plane that would arrive in a more timely fashion.

Public sentiment was turning against the union, and the Nixon administration was quick to exploit it, responding to the stoppage with the sort of bare-knuckled rhetoric that would be heard again during the union’s 1981 showdown with the Reagan White House. FAA chief John Shaffer rejected any overtures to negotiate with PATCO leaders, saying that “these men are on strike—illegally—against the government…. The only thing to be discussed is punishment.” Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman spelled out to the president the political dividends of a zero-tolerance approach to bargaining with the absentee controllers, bluntly endorsing a plan “to fire a bunch of them” in order to “prove government employees can’t win by striking.”

Nixon flaks also sought to depict Bailey, who’d proven such a public relations asset at the time of PATCO’s launch, as a reckless megalomaniac, in the tradition of “demagogues like Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and Joe McCarthy,” according to one overheated FAA pronouncement. The FAA even enlisted a staff psychologist to warn that “we must regard Bailey as one who will continually twist the rules because he cannot live within the rules of authority”—this despite never having actually met the man. Establishment opinion about the sickout soon fell in line with the government’s. Summoning the specter of untrammeled chaos that had inspired every strikebreaker in the public sector since the 1919 Boston police strike, the New York Times editorial board explained that the PATCO work stoppage was nothing less than a threat to civilization. Should the union prevail, the paper warned, “we need not be surprised if in the future firemen go on strike at the height of a five-alarm fire, public health doctors in the middle of a major epidemic, and policemen at the crest of a crime wave.” In a gush of Spenglerian rhetoric, the paper concluded, “That way lies anarchy and dissolution of the bonds and restraints that distinguish a civilized community from the jungle.” As the action spilled into its second week, the federal courts approved a government request for restraining orders against PATCO in sixteen jurisdictions. While the sickout wore on for another few weeks, the isolated controllers had no maneuvering room, and ended the action, defeated, in mid-April.

* * *

Ironies continued to abound, however, for as McCartin notes, shortly after routing PATCO, the government overplayed its hand. Rather than declaring victory and letting controllers get back to work, Shaffer demoted and dismissed a host of strike leaders. Regional FAA managers embarked on similar—and all too frequently petty—campaigns of reprisal. “The government’s hostile response to sickout participants completed PATCO’s conversion to unionism,” McCartin writes.

The battered, revenue-starved controllers’ union could well have folded after the sickout debacle, but it was revitalized by, of all things, a codicil to a 1971 grain deal between the United States and the Soviet Union. As in many such arrangements, ideological purity counted quite nearly for nothing. President Nixon, who’d made his national career as a redbaiting Congressman, now wanted to advance détente through strategic trade alliances with the Soviets. Nixon’s chief advisers—once so keen to make an example of law-breaking PATCO sickout leaders—were surveying the 1972 election landscape, eager to strengthen the significant gains their boss had won among the white working-class electorate in his narrow 1968 victory over Hubert Humphrey. Not long after the sickout, Bailey and PATCO parted ways, and the union entered into an alliance with the Maritime Engineers’ Beneficial Association, a stolid trade union. MEBA head Jesse Calhoon had strong ties to the Washington power scene, and especially to the Republican Party. When PATCO joined several other transportation unions in a vow not to load or transport Soviet grain, Calhoon was in a unique position to secure major concessions from the government. In a series of secret confabs with Nixon adviser Charles Colson, Calhoon managed to win the reinstatement of all but one of the controllers fired in the previous year’s sickout, “Strike” Mike Rock, who as it happened had taken a full-time leadership post with the union and did not especially want to resume his controlling duties.

The back-from-the-dead rehiring pact did wonders for PATCO’s flagging fortunes—and into the bargain seemed to redeem the union’s newfound post-sickout militancy. “Rank-and-file controllers were amazed that their striking colleagues were rehired” after the FAA had spent the past eighteen months vowing that they’d never return, McCartin writes. PATCO leaders enjoyed a renewed sense of mission and professional identity. “It could not be denied any longer that we were actually a labor union” after the sickout, union board president Bill South explained. “We were no silly professional organization, no benevolent society or anything like that. We were a labor union.”

Over the next decade, the union continued to rack up victories, and when the controllers’ contract with the FAA came due for renegotiation in 1981, PATCO leaders were confident they could prevail by raising the ante. They resolved to ask for an unprecedented $10,000 across-the-board pay increase for their members, together with a 10 percent raise in the contract’s second year, with a four-day workweek and generous cost-of-living provisions thrown into the bargain. And newly elected PATCO president Robert Poli—who’d succeeded the more irenic incumbent John Leyden in a surprise insurgent challenge—was keen to demonstrate his clout before the union’s restive rank and file. He presumed to be bargaining from a position of strength because during the run-up to contract negotiations, PATCO had sought to secure firm Washington backing with another surprise move: it endorsed Reagan in the 1980 election, partly as a matter of heeding the shifting national mood, and partly out of sheer exasperation with the Carter administration’s handling of key controller concerns. At the same time, Poli and senior union officials were coordinating plans to conduct a walkout should talks with the government stall; they charged a roving band of controllers known as the Choirboys with enlisting support for the union’s contract demands and a prospective work stoppage. The group’s name underscored the rank and file’s need to sing off the same page, while also name-checking Joseph Wambaugh’s bestselling 1975 tough-guy tribute to Los Angeles cops.

By the time negotiations were under way in June 1981, PATCO’s coordinated plans began to unravel. The White House’s final counteroffer was a package that worked out to a salary increase of 11.4 percent. Poli and his colleagues deemed it insufficient, and were unswayed by the appeal to precedent made by government negotiator Drew Lewis: “we’re doing something here that no one else is about to do in government, which is to negotiate with you over wages, hours and working conditions.” Lewis was correct. The Reagan White House, acting against the GOP’s powerful right-to-work, small-government wing and more than a few senior administration advisers, had transformed the stubborn strictures of Kennedy’s Executive Order 10988 into a dead letter.

There was a still stranger turn to the negotiations. Poli and his team ended up accepting the White House’s offer after learning that a headcount of controllers prepared to walk off the job fell short of the 80 percent threshold they deemed necessary for an effective strike. But once the parties reached the tentative agreement, Poli mounted no effort to present it to his members as a half-loaf breakthrough—vindicating, among other things, the ability of federal workers to negotiate wages and hours in collective bargaining talks. Instead, the union’s pro-strike constituency—stoked for more than a year by the Choirboys’ full-court press—seized the momentum during the forty-eight-hour period granted to PATCO members to review the contract.

At this critical juncture, Democratic New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro plotted to embarrass the Reagan administration with a leaked copy of an October 20, 1980, letter that PATCO lead counsel Richard Leighton had written to a Reagan campaign aide named Michael Balzano. The missive laid out the union’s preferred terms for an endorsement, including the right to review the Reagan administration’s prospective new nominee to head the FAA. Ferraro and three of her Democratic colleagues forwarded the letter to Attorney General William French Smith, demanding an investigation of the exchange on the grounds that the agreement was a potential violation of federal law. Nothing came of the lawmakers’ appeal, but it did in effect freeze the Reagan White House into its counteroffer, which PATCO’s membership was in the process of rejecting. Ferraro’s letter to Smith, McCartin writes, “effectively foreclosed any possibility that the administration could offer PATCO more in a second round of negotiations. Any further concessions to PATCO would have invited further scrutiny of the Leighton-Balzano negotiation and allowed Reagan’s critics to claim he was cutting a sweetheart deal as payback for PATCO’s endorsement.”

* * *

And so we come to the PATCO saga’s crowning irony. The most notorious union-crushing action ever taken by a US president was immediately preceded by White House officials’ worry that their man would be perceived as taking orders from the union he was about to destroy; moreover, the public figure who had unnerved them was a Democratic Congresswoman whose household fortune came courtesy of the unscrupulous real estate developer she’d married, scarcely the sort of lawmaker attuned to the perspective of aggrieved workers about to put their jobs on the line. Anyone looking for an early augur of the weirdly distorted class politics that have disfigured the American scene since the Reagan era—with Democratic leaders routinely selling labor’s interests down the river amid low-stakes partisan point-scoring, or in hectic pursuit of the ever-new, ever-globalizing information economy—could do a lot worse than to start here.

With both sides thus locked into non-negotiable positions, in August 1981 the nation’s air traffic controllers walked off the job. The ensuing PATCO standoff became regular entertainment on nightly news broadcasts for months to come. Meanwhile, Reagan’s firm pronouncement, from the sanctum of the White House Rose Garden, that he was firing every PATCO member who did not return to work in forty-eight hours became perhaps the foundational moment in the great enabling myth of the Gipper’s no-nonsense leadership style. The broader template of the PATCO war—pitting austerity-minded, law-enforcing public officials against a battery of unreasonably militant, shortsighted labor leaders—has enjoyed a half-life far beyond those raw, bitter and ultimately futile months of confrontation in 1981.

McCartin correctly enumerates many of the most damaging lessons from the 1981 fiasco: an understandably traumatized labor movement developed an abiding aversion to using the most powerful weapon in its arsenal, and a corresponding confidence on the part of employers in both the private and public sector to resort to open tactics of strike-breaking without any fear of public stigma or reprisals, with a growing expectation that many ordinary Americans would hail their actions as heroic. But ever since the PATCO strike failed so colossally, its most damaging fallout has arguably been in the diffuse realm of the political ideal-type. The popular image of the union movement as the plaything of an entitled civil service demanding ever greater sacrifices from the taxpaying public has adhered strongly in the nation’s political unconscious, though the state initiative vote in Ohio last year upholding the collective bargaining rights of public employees is an encouraging sign that this particular reactionary tide could be turning.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the apocalyptic vision of civic collapse prophesied in the excitable editorial pages of the Times circa 1970 has indeed come to pass, but in a far different fashion from that envisioned by those sober gentlemen. For some two decades, the firefighting operations in South Fulton, Tennessee, have been privatized, and on several occasions residents who have failed to pay the town’s $75 annual firefighting fee have called 911 when their homes caught fire, only to have their appeals for help ignored, or worse, to see firefighting crews arrive and stand idly by as their homes burned to the ground. As David Crocker, the South Fulton mayor, has explained, it is all a simple matter of resource scarcity: “There’s no way to go to every fire and keep up the manpower, the equipment, and just the funding for the fire department.” Crocker’s mood of pinched resignation and fatalism about America’s once-robust public sector marks the distance we’ve all traversed since the controllers’ union crashed ingloriously to earth. As McCartin makes clear in his meticulous, unsparing reconstruction of the clash between the controllers’ union and America’s most accomplished faux-populist chief executive, PATCO lost much more than a strike in the fateful summer of 1981.

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