Magazine | November 14, 2011, Issue

Unfriendly Skies

Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America, by Joseph A. McCartin (Oxford, 496 pp., $29.95)

There were two events in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency that justify the use of the overworked phrase “defining moment”: the assassination attempt after only the tenth week in office, and the firing of over two-thirds of the nation’s air-traffic controllers when they went on strike in early August of 1981. Reagan’s tough handling of the illegal strike has loomed large both for Reagan’s fans and for his critics. It presents a simple story line. His admirers see it as a sign of his decisiveness, strength, and determination; his critics see it as evidence of his pro-business malevolence toward the working man. New Jersey governor Chris Christie singled it out as his favorite Reagan story in his recent speech at the Reagan Library; Wisconsin governor Scott Walker also invoked the strike during his fight with the unions this winter and spring. The two sides agree that it had consequences beyond the striking controllers.

The full story is much more complicated, historian Joseph McCartin argues in Collision Course; the strike story “has often become entangled with myth and legend.” On the surface McCartin’s book gives off every indication that it is going to be a pro-union, Reagan-bashing tome. McCartin, who specializes in labor history at Georgetown University, is the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown, and is the author of a previous book on “the struggle for industrial democracy.” But you can turn off the flashing yellow lights warning that Collision Course is going to be an ideological account of the famous episode. To the contrary, the narrative is so scrupulously even-handed that it is impossible to deduce from the text what McCartin’s own ideology may be. In an age of obscurantist academic historical writing, Collision Course stands out as a model of accessible and relevant scholarship. Along the way, McCartin breaks new ground in its account of what took place and what it means.

McCartin can justly claim that no one has had the full story accurately in view before now, mostly because no one before him has so thoroughly researched the long history of the rise of the air-traffic controllers’ union, PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization). McCartin goes all the way back to before the beginning, to the initial impulses to unionize when the civilian air-travel system was growing rapidly in the late 1950s. The book begins slowly, with a  lengthy detailing of the rising stress on control towers and a mid-air collision of two airliners over New York in 1960. It is probably more detail and background than necessary, but patient readers will be rewarded with a well-constructed narrative that builds to the climax of the strike in 1981. The book also has the virtue of being told partly from the point of view of two controllers, Jack Maher and Mike Rock, whose careers span its entire time frame.

Along the way, McCartin brings to light some surprising details and highlights some labor issues still very much alive today. When most Americans became acquainted with PATCO in 1981, few remembered that a key figure in getting the union formed in the 1960s was famed attorney F. Lee Bailey (later notorious for his defense of O. J. Simpson): But for Bailey, PATCO might never have gotten off the ground in the late 1960s. McCartin also details how PATCO generally had good relations with the Nixon administration, and lousy relations with President Carter, which was one reason it thought it would fare well with President Reagan, whom it endorsed in 1980.

The back story to PATCO’s rise involves the ambiguous status of public-employee unionism, which took its first major step forward on the federal level with President Kennedy’s executive order allowing public employees to organize but stopping well short of what the AFL-CIO and other union leaders really wanted — the right to bargain directly on wages, hiring and firing policies, and the right to strike. In other words, public-employee unions lacked most of the rights that are central to customary trade unions. Still, the foot was in the door, and although the AFL-CIO was privately disappointed, federal employees believed that (in McCartin’s words) “a new era was dawning.” Air-traffic controllers weren’t primarily interested in these aspects of unionization at that time anyway: They mostly wanted the government to hire more controllers to reduce overtime hours and make improvements to workplace conditions. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), always under a budget leash, resisted. For a long time after its founding in 1968, PATCO wasn’t even sure whether it was a real union or simply a glorified professional organization. And it was far from having a strategy.

#page#Air-traffic controllers were in a unique position among public employees to engage in “job actions” that would never work for most bureaucrats. If an ordinary bureaucrat slows down the paperwork, who will notice the difference from business as usual? But controllers were closely tethered to the real world of potential life-and-death situations. McCartin explains how, as a practical matter, controllers always spaced planes more closely than regulations called for, in order to make sure air travel wasn’t delayed. They could therefore engage in job actions simply by going by the book on airplane spacing. If they wanted to, even a handful of controllers could cause long delays and flight cancellations to cascade across the country. An early job action of this type in 1968 won controllers some attention and results from Congress, which authorized funding to hire more controllers.

Shortly after Nixon took office in 1969, PATCO began taking steps toward being a more conventional union, with a confrontational attitude toward management. It affiliated with the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, an experienced and politically savvy AFL-CIO affiliate, which advised PATCO that “you do not take on the Congress of the United States and the president of the United States and expect to win,” advice PATCO clearly forgot in 1981. Another job action in 1970, a more organized and widespread 19-day sick-out, went badly for PATCO. The FAA cracked down hard, threatening fines against controllers who didn’t return to work and firing leaders of the sick-out after it ended. The union was in disarray and near bankruptcy. One ominous portent PATCO ignored: They received no sympathy or support from airline pilots or other unions.

The Nixon administration, then hoping to peel off some unions from the Democratic party in the 1972 election, took its foot off PATCO’s throat and made several concessions. In retrospect, McCartin thinks, PATCO drew wrong lessons from this period that “would contribute directly to PATCO’s spectacular destruction less than a decade later.” Over the next few years, McCartin says, PATCO became the most militant federal public-employee union, with the idea of a full-fledged strike, even though illegal, beginning to take shape in the PATCO leadership and the rank-and-file by the mid- to late-1970s. PATCO’s leaders were not deterred by the law; “the only illegal strike,” one leader said, “is an unsuccessful strike.” The union endorsed Jimmy Carter in 1976 but began to set up a strike fund in 1977 as relations with the Carter administration worsened. PATCO gave a lukewarm reception to a new FAA contract offer in 1978; only 62 percent of the rank-and-file voted to accept the contract. Serious planning for a full-blown strike in 1981, when the new contract ended, began in 1979.

Disgusted with Carter, PATCO’s leadership was open to feelers from the Reagan campaign in 1980, which led to an October meeting between Reagan and PATCO’s president, Robert Poli. Reagan announced afterward that he would consider exempting air-traffic controllers from the federal pay freeze he intended to order if he won the election, and expressed sympathy for some of the union’s complaints. PATCO joined a handful of other unions in endorsing Reagan. The irony, McCartin concludes, is that PATCO believed that endorsing Reagan offered the only plausible scenario for avoiding a strike the following year, but the endorsement had the effect of fostering “soaring expectations among rank-and-file controllers and activists — expectations that would ultimately prove impossible to satisfy at the bargaining table.”

As McCartin tells it, and contrary to clichés from the union Left, the Reagan administration bargained in good faith with PATCO and made unprecedented concessions, starting with the direct involvement of Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis (PATCO had never dealt with a cabinet secretary before), and culminating in Lewis’s step of allowing salaries to be a subject for negotiations. “Never before,” McCartin writes, “had the government offered so much in a negotiation with a federal employees’ union.” Although PATCO didn’t get everything it wanted, other labor leaders who saw the deal “pronounced it ‘the best civil-service contract ever negotiated,’” while Carter’s former FAA chief said simply, “The union won.” It was especially remarkable given that PATCO entered the negotiations in February 1981 without clear contract objectives; it merely wanted a breakthrough of some kind. The bitter irony is that the Reagan administration’s concessions backfired; they only whetted the appetite of the rank-and-file for how well they’d do if they went on strike. They overwhelmingly rejected the contract that PATCO’s leaders had delivered.

#page#Then the next irony fell into place: Democrats on Capitol Hill attacked the contract offer, saying it was a Reagan payoff to the union for its campaign endorsement. Leading the charge was New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, who was demanding an investigation into potential corruption. This political attack from labor’s traditional Democratic allies ended any chance that the Reagan administration might sweeten its contract offer. A strike became inevitable, despite the appeals of other labor leaders, who thought PATCO’s Poli had botched the negotiations, not to launch a “suicidal” strike.

While PATCO had its long-prepared strike plan, the Reagan administration had its own plan to break the strike that, in the final irony, had been prepared by the Carter administration in anticipation of a strike. Both sides were surprised by the course of events after Reagan delivered his public ultimatum that striking controllers return to work within 48 hours or be fired. Fewer controllers walked out than PATCO hoped (and needed to make the strike cripple air travel completely); fewer came back to work than the Reagan administration expected. Both sides could be said to have lost, but PATCO was the ultimate loser. It cost taxpayers $2 billion to retrain replacement controllers, but the union lost its certification and 11,345 controllers their jobs. The strike had wider effects on labor relations, writes McCartin: “No strike since the advent of the New Deal damaged the U.S. labor movement more.”

McCartin’s meticulous narrative offers no support for the Left’s view of a malicious Reagan determined to crush controllers under his heel, and although McCartin’s personal sympathies are probably with the controllers and labor more generally, it is hard to escape concluding that the peculiar culture of the controllers’ union is most responsible for their debacle. This episode makes for a great case study in the game-theory aspects of labor-management relations: PATCO would have struck if the Reagan administration had taken a harder line at the bargaining table, but the administration’s concessions caused controllers to overestimate their strength — a frequent tragic flaw — and self-immolate anyway. Most readers will come away from Collision Course with a feeling of sadness for the controllers, and anger, not at Reagan, but at PATCO’s poor leadership.

– Mr. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author ofThe Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980–1989.

Steven F. Hayward — Stephen F. Hayward is a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a two-volume political history, The Age of Reagan.

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