Why the PATCO strike changed unions in America and how they can make a comeback

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. On Aug. 5, 1981, President Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers who refused to return from the picket line after the President issued an ultimatum.

The move to fire the air traffic controllers and ban them from working in the industry changed the face of unionization in America. Company owners took it as a sign that they too could break strikes with impunity, severely curtailing the effectiveness of strikes as a tool to fight for workers’ rights.

Joe McCartin, a professor and labor history expert at Georgetown University, joined America’s Work Force Union Podcast to discuss the strike, how it impacted the working class and why legislation such as the PRO Act could give unions back their muster.

The PATCO strike was a game changer

An expert on U.S. labor, social and political history, Joe McCartin has been a professor at Georgetown University since 1999, teaching courses on U.S. labor history and the recent U.S. political economy. He is also the founding Executive Director of Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor (KI), which he has led since 2009. The KI is a leading labor research, education, training and innovation center.

McCartin recently published a piece, “The Downward Path We’ve Trod: Reflections on an Ominous Anniversary,” details how the labor movement was undermined by PATCO’s defeat and how the loss led to inequality and strife in the modern American economy.

McCartin called the PATCO strike a game changer. Until that point, the post World War II labor movement relied on the power of the strike to force managers back to the bargaining table. When business owners saw President Reagan fire striking workers and get away with it — even leverage greater public support — they saw this as a license to break strikes.

He said it was stunning how fast and dramatic the falloff of striking workers proved to be — and it continues to this day. In the 1970s, workers staged an average of 289 major work stoppages per year that involved at least 1,000 workers. Last year, there were only eight.

Once workers lost the leverage of the strike, massive inequality surged, McCartin said. As employers revealed they would do anything to break a picket line, it became much harder to use strikes as a bargaining weapon.

How unions can make a comeback

Ironically, the air traffic controllers who replaced the fired strikers went on to form their own union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), one of the strongest unions in America today, McCartin said. The fallout from the PATCO strike cost taxpayers billions of dollars, he explained. When the replacement controllers unionized, the FAA realized it was better to learn to live with a union than go through the costly heartbreak of 1981.

Workers and American society is at an inflection point in American history, McCartin declared. In the next year, what happens for unions and the right to organize will shape the next 10, 20 or 30 years.

McCartin also pointed to the Richard Trumka PRO Act, newly renamed in honor of the late union leader, that he called the most important piece of labor legislation to be considered in this country since the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. If the PRO Act passes, it will level the playing field for the right to organize and give unions back much of the power they lost in 1981.


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