HOT TOPICS ▶ Climate Change     Undoing The New Deal     The Real Baltimore     Reality Asserts Itself     United Kingdom    

  August 6, 2014

The Consequences of Reagan Breaking the '81 Air Traffic Controllers Strike (2/2)

Prof. Joseph McCartin and former PATCO spokesperson Elliot Simons explain why other organized labor didn't strike in solidarity with PATCO workers
Members don't see ads. If you are a member, and you're seeing this appeal, click here


Share to Facebook Share to Twitter

I support The Real News Network because it is not Conservative, it is not Liberal; it is Real. - David Pear
Log in and tell us why you support TRNN


Joseph A. McCartin is professor of history and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. He is an expert on 20th Century U.S. labor history who studies the intersection of politics and labor policy. He is the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.

Elliot Simons is an Aeronautical Engineer from Arizona State University who joined the FAA in 1975, and transferred to BWI in 1978. He became the media spokesperson for the PATCO local. Like many other fired controllers he attempted to get his job back after the strike in 1981, but did not get reinstated.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieuxin Baltimore. And welcome to part two of our conversation about the anniversary of then president Ronald Reagan's firing 11,000 air traffic controllers.

Now joining us to pick up this discussion are our two guests.

Joseph McCartin is a professor of history and the director of the initiative for labor and the working poor at Georgetown University. He's also the author of the book Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America.

And joining us by telephone is Elliot Simons. He was the former media spokesperson for PATCO local and was one of the many strikers who lost their jobs after the strike.

Thank you both for joining us again.


DESVARIEUX: So, Joseph, we were talking about just the impact of Ronald Reagan's actions a little bit in our first part of the interview. So I want to pick it up and ask you about the responses of other labor organizations at the time to this firing.

MCCARTIN: Sure. Well, on the morning that the strike took place, which was August 3, 1981, it turned out that the AFL-CIO was hosting its annual meeting of its executive council in Chicago. So that meant that all of the presidents of the major unions of the AFL were sitting together at a conference table that morning, as Elliot Simons and his colleagues were walking out and forming picket lines outside of the nation's airports. When those union presidents heard that the strike and begun, and moreover when they heard that Ronald Reagan had issued a 48 hour ultimatum, they were deeply alarmed. And they were, also, some of them, miffed and angry, because they felt that PATCO couldn't possibly win this strike and that by walking out, all of the labor movement was sort of out on a limb. And they either had to support PATCO or see it go down. But they didn't know how to support the PATCO strike. Some people in the room, William Winpisinger, the head of the International Association of Machinists, raised the possibility that there ought to be sympathy strikes by other unions. But most union presidents that were present at that time said that that would not go over with their members and that if they tried to call such strikes and they didn't materialize, it would show the whole labor movement to be a paper tiger. So the labor movement basically was paralyzed in its response to Reagan. It came out and made public statements against what Reagan's response to this walkout was, but it had trouble forming any consensus to do much more than that. And so, sadly, the union movement sort of observed over the next several days as this fateful encounter took place and those workers were fired. It was a huge unionbusting episode, and the labor movement felt powerless at the time to do much about it.

DESVARIEUX: Joseph, didn't the AFL-CIO also at the time send out letters to its affiliates essentially discouraging them to stand with PATCO workers at the time of the strike?

MCCARTIN: The AFL-CIO itself did not do that, but some of its unions did. Some of the union presidents were in fact very anti-PATCO. And one of the most important was the president of the Air Line Pilots Association. And that president absolutely not only disapproved of PATCO strike but felt that that strike would cost airline pilots their jobs. Many of them were being laid off because of the tremendous cutbacks in flights that were allowed by the FAA. And so J. J. O'Donnell was his name--came out with public statements quite critical of PATCO and urging pilots to continue to fly, telling the public that the skies were safe. And that really had a devastating impact on the air traffic controllers.

DESVARIEUX: Elliot, I want to bring you back into the conversation, because you were a member of PATCO. There's some criticism, though, that there was a sort of lack of militancy or class politics among unions at the time, which gave Reagan enough confidence to essentially fire so many workers without fearing much retaliation from labor. What's your response to that?

ELLIOT SIMONS, FMR. MEDIA SPOKESPERSON, PATCO LOCAL: My response is slightly different. PATCO at the time, myself included, were so arrogant that we didn't think we needed the help. So there was really not much preplanning that went on. We felt we were going to shut the air traffic system down. We didn't think they could proceed without us. And when it finally happened and all of a sudden it was working, we were really caught short.

PORTER: I would just add to what Elliot has just said and confirm that. And from my research and talking to PATCO leaders, as well as leaders of other unions at the time, a lot of those other union leaders were caught by surprise by this strike. They didn't really understand what was happening. And PATCO did believe that they would be able to win it on their own. They didn't do too much beforehand to build a kind of broad solidarity around their demands. And that proved to be fatal.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Joseph, I also want to ask you about the long-term impact of the strike on unions and the labor movement as a whole. Just some statistics. I mean, everyone knows that union membership in unions has been dwindling for some time, but back in '83, 20 percent of the American workforce was in a union. Today it's at about 11 percent. Did Reagan's action really embolden employers to crush labor essentially?

MCCARTIN: It absolutely did. And even though this strike involved fewer than 12,000 federal workers of a very specialized variety, it had an impact well beyond the air traffic control towers of the country, well beyond the federal workforce, and deeply into the private-sector workforce. When Ronald Reagan replaced the air traffic controllers 1981, it was still not common for American employers in the private sector to deal with strikes by trying to break them and by permanently replacing workers who'd gone out on strike. But, in fact, once Reagan had sort of successfully broken PATCO and retained his popularity in the aftermath of that--and that was crucial. Employers saw that Reagan was able to do this and in effect get away with it. Many private-sector employers took a similarly hard line when workers went out on strike in the private sector.

Now, federal workers by law did not have a right to strike, and by law, Reagan had the right to fire them as he did. Workers in the private sector, at least by law, were supposed to have the right to strike, but in strike after strike in the 1980s at places like Phelps Dodge, the copper mine company in Arizona, at Hormel, the meatpackers plant up in Austin, Minnesota, and at many other places around the country, when private-sector workers went out on strike, their employer simply shut down the negotiations and hired replacements and either broke the unions or forced the unions to come back in a terribly weakened state. So Reagan's action had a huge impact.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And that huge impact, Elliot, I mean, it's being felt today. What sort of advice would you give unions today? What lessons have you learned that you would pass on to them in termsr of lessons that you've learned from your strike?

SIMONS: Things are so different today, I'm not sure that I could give really give some advice. But certainly the union that replaced PATCO learned the lesson, and they're doing it very well. That's the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, or NATCA. And, in fact, I joke with people and I say the PATCO strike was the most successful strike in history. NATCA got everything we asked for and more.

MCCARTIN: That's true. And I will say that the Reagan administration was prepared to meet many of PATCO's demands. Ultimately they did. They just weren't going to do it in that strike. But air traffic controllers who followed Elliot and his colleagues ended up working, and under much better conditions than Elliot and his colleagues have done. And their strike was instrumental in bringing bad about.

SIMONS: The other real key part that we didn't understand back then was the force of public opinion back then. And, again, we thought that we could shut things down and public opinion didn't matter. So we were so wrong. It was a political lesson that we were learning the hard way. And, again, if I was going to advise any group of people that were trying to organize, it's to understand the politics, understand what's happening locally and nationally before they take any action.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Elliot Simons, as well as professor Joseph McCartin, thank you both for joining us.

MCCARTIN: Thank you, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


Our automatic spam filter blocks comments with multiple links and multiple users using the same IP address. Please make thoughtful comments with minimal links using only one user name. If you think your comment has been mistakenly removed please email us at

latest stories

Corbyn Allies in Labour Attacked For Supporting Palestinian Struggle
Kochs and ALEC Behind Criminalization of Dissent Bills in Five States
West's Anti-Russian Fervor Will Help Putin Win Election On Sunday
Stephen Hawking: Fighter for Progressive Politics
Paul Jay: Threats facing Humanity, Russiagate & the Role of Independent Media
Corbyn Smeared as 'Russian Stooge' for Requesting Evidence on Poisoned Spy
Chief in Charge of Internal Affairs To Retire from Baltimore Police
Corbyn Calls for Evidence in Escalating Poison Row
Sanders Resolution Against War in Yemen Challenged by Mattis
Senate Expands 'Lobbyist Bill' to Deregulate Real Estate
Expressions of Afro-Asian Solidarity during the Cold War
Economic Benefits of Tax Cuts Should Have Arrived - Where Are They?
Trump's Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Is Another World Possible? - Leo Panitch on RAI (4/4)
Students Demand Leaders Address the Root Causes of Gun Violence
Far-Right Ministers in Chile's New Government Placed in Sensitive Positions
Israeli Military Strangles Its Own Weapons Manufacturer to Privatize It
Not Without Black Women
Newly Tapped Sec of State Mike Pompeo Comes with Deep Ties to the Koch Brothers
The CIA's New Torturer-in-Chief
Anti-Pipeline Indigenous 'Mass Mobilization' Has Begun
UN Rapporteur: US Sanctions Cause Death in Venezuela
Colombia's Conservatives Make Gains in Congress Vote Amid Fraud Allegations
Wilkerson: Trump Won't Make Peace with North Korea
The Rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Class Struggle in the UK Labour Party - RAI with Leo Panitch (3/4)
Western Governments Whitewash Saudi Dictator MBS as 'Reformer'
US Cowardice Prevents Middle East Peace
Should China Maintain its Non-interference Policy toward Africa?
Bills to Ban Styrofoam and Crude Oil Terminals Pass Baltimore City Council
Elites Impose Education Policies They Would Never Accept for their Children,, The Real News Network, Real News Network, The Real News, Real News, Real News For Real People, IWT are trademarks and service marks of Independent World Television inc. "The Real News" is the flagship show of IWT and The Real News Network.

All original content on this site is copyright of The Real News Network. Click here for more

Problems with this site? Please let us know

Web Design, Web Development and Managed Hosting