A review of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America, by Joseph A. McCartin

After the 2010 Tea Party elections, American politics was consumed with disputes over public sector labor relations. To balance their budgets, governors across the country demanded that public employees accept salary freezes, furlough days, and less generous pension and healthcare benefits. Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey and Democrats Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York wrestled with government workers' unions over wage and benefit concessions that would close budget deficits without raising taxes. Other governors, such as Republicans Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio, sought to go further and enact structural reforms eliminating collective bargaining with most state workers' unions, halting government collection of union dues, and giving agency managers greater workplace discretion.

The unions and their allies in the Democratic Party met these efforts with massive resistance. Angry protests in the Wisconsin capital lasted for weeks. Democratic state legislators fled to neighboring Illinois to prevent a vote on the proposal, but succeeded only in postponing legislative defeat. The unions are now spearheading a recall election to remove Walker from office before the scheduled conclusion of his term in 2014. In Ohio, the unions and their allies responded by quickly putting the new law on the ballot in a referendum, then vastly out-spending and out-mobilizing the measure's supporters to defeat it handily.

Trying to understand this new area of political conflict forced policymakers, union leaders, journalists, and citizens to play catch-up. Scholars, having neglected public employee unions for decades, had few insights to offer. Most political scientists don't even bother to distinguish public from private sector unions, preferring to lump them under the catch-all category of organized labor. And while historians have written enough studies of Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers to fill a shelf, there is not a single scholarly treatment of Jerry Wurf or the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which he led for 27 years before his death in 1981, laying the foundation that made AFSCME the most politically powerful union in the country today.

Why have scholars neglected government unions? Perhaps college-educated teachers and the "bad proletariat" of cops and corrections officers lacked the clear victimhood status of industrial workers battling capitalist barons. It might also be that dealing with public sector unions' unique features would require revising the traditional story of organized labor in the United States.

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Joseph McCartin's excellent new book is a timely contribution that helps fill this gap. In Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America, McCartin, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University, provides a richly detailed account of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) from its founding in 1968 through its demise after President Ronald Reagan fired and replaced all the striking controllers in 1981. The book clarifies distinctions usually left blurred—between unions in the public and private sectors, and between labor relations in federal and state government.

The job of the air traffic controller migrated from the military to the civilian sector as the commercial airline industry grew rapidly after World War II. It promised entry into the world of white-collar professionalism to men (and a handful of women) without college degrees—many of whom had received their initial training in the armed forces. By the 1960s and '70s controllers' salaries allowed them to join the suburban middle class. Responsible for the lives of thousands of airline passengers while directing dozens of flights simultaneously, controllers endured harrowing stress on the job. The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) hierarchical management style often grated, the hours could be grueling, and forced overtime was commonplace. Equipment was frequently in a state of disrepair, safety rules disregarded, and hazing by senior employees often harsh. Consequently, controllers formed the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) as a vehicle to get their grievances heard. Like many public employee associations, ATCA extended membership to managers too and dismissed the tactics of traditional unionism as unprofessional.

On January 17, 1962 President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, which opened a new avenue of collective action for federal employees, allowing them to organize into unions and negotiate with their agency managers. As McCartin's thorough analysis of EO 10988 shows, however, Kennedy's order did not provide for full collective bargaining rights—words which appeared nowhere in the order—and it created as many problems as it solved. Indeed, the workplace issues of pay, benefits, and management's prerogatives to hire, fire, and transfer employees were all excluded from negotiations. (They remain so to this day, even though these issues are subject to collective bargaining by public employee unions in many states.)

Nonetheless, the number of federal employees belonging to unions and covered by negotiated contracts shot up. The air traffic controllers broke from ATCA and eventually formed PATCO in 1968—with the help, in one of the strangest connections in labor history, of the nation's most famous trial lawyer, F. Lee Bailey. (Bailey had successfully defended a doctor accused of murdering his wife, a case that became the basis for the long-running television series The Fugitive.) Over the next decade EO 10988 did more to frustrate than facilitate PATCO's efforts to win improvements for its members. It was able to induce changes only through a series of semi-legal "job actions." In these "slow downs" controllers coordinated "sick outs" and "worked to code," following the safety rule-book to the letter, clogging air traffic and causing huge delays, harming airlines, passengers, and commerce.

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Unable to make much headway on core issues, by the end of the 1970s PATCO was more militant than ever. Salaries had not kept pace with inflation, inasmuch as Jimmy Carter's administration had held down federal salaries as an austerity measure. As a result, even though "their objective economic positions were better than that of most American workers," McCartin notes, union members were ready to push for more. As the sole representative of workers providing a vital service over which the government held a monopoly, PATCO believed it had enough leverage by the late 1970s to assert itself in ways that would halt and even reverse trends unfavorable to its members—irrespective of economic conditions. This unshakeable conviction led to disaster. Even after winning a better contract from the Carter Administration than other federal workers received, PATCO militants staged a palace coup that dethroned the union's moderate president in favor of a less experienced but more assertive leader.

Despite its rising militancy, PATCO had endorsed Ronald Reagan after he made some vague promises to the union during the 1980 campaign. Reagan had reached out to the air traffic controllers as part of his campaign's strategy of courting more conservative workers—a strategy that paid off when Reagan won almost as many votes from union households as Carter did. McCartin argues the union deceived itself by imagining Reagan to have endorsed their demands because he did not explicitly reject them.

The problem was that PATCO's demands—including wage increases and a shorter workweek—went well into "non-negotiable" territory under existing law. Yet it clung to the idea that a serious strike threat would get the Reagan Administration to roll over. Although strikes by federal workers were illegal, PATCO leaders regularly reminded FAA officials in early 1981 that "the only illegal strike is an unsuccessful strike." Surprisingly, the Reagan Administration went a long way toward meeting the union's demands, in part because it feared that a strike would cost the economy $150 million per day. "Never before had the government offered so much in a negotiation with a federal employees' union," McCartin argues. But PATCO ignored several warning signs—including pleas to desist from the AFL-CIO and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill—ultimately rejecting the administration's offer and calling a strike anyway.

Reagan reacted adamantly. In a White House meeting, he said: "Dammit, the law is the law and the law says they cannot strike." He then issued an ultimatum that all controllers who did not return to work within 48 hours would be fired and replaced. The FAA swung into action, putting supervisors, most of whom had once been controllers, back to work and calling in controllers from the military. The nation's airline system struggled for the next few years as new controllers were trained and hired. In a departure from past labor conflicts in the federal government, however, the FAA never rehired most of the fired PATCO strikers.

"There was deep irony here," McCartin writes, because Reagan was "the only president ever to have led a labor union [the Screen Actors Guild], a man who as governor had presided over the extension of collective bargaining rights to California's public workers, [and] who as president had been prepared to break new ground in negotiating with federal workers." Nonetheless, breaking the PATCO strike forged a lasting image of Reagan's toughness as a leader.

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A more fundamental result was legitimizing the "fire and replace" response to strikes by employers, which blunted unions' most powerful weapon in industrial relations. Because the entire nation witnessed Reagan's decision, McCartin argues, it encouraged business managers to see the tactic as justifiable. And once "remember PATCO" became a watchword, it became more difficult for unions to mobilize their members for strikes. Indeed, since the 1980s, strikes in the public and private sectors have declined dramatically. In 2009 there were only five major work stoppages, involving a mere 13,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The ultimate source of organized labor's strength has been rendered nugatory, for which unions in the private sector can reasonably blame PATCO and President Reagan.

In telling the story of the most dramatic public employee strike in the nation's history, McCartin is remarkably even-handed. Deftly showing how the union's sociological and psychological dynamics made a strike almost inevitable, he makes a powerful case that the strike was a huge mistake, especially after PATCO had won so much from the Reagan Administration at the bargaining table. At the same time, McCartin makes clear that the Reagan Administration had little choice but to respond forcefully: no union can (or should) back the president of the United States into a corner. The author laments how the administration's decision to bar strikers from ever working at the FAA again took a toll on their lives. Even so, he lays the ultimate blame at the door of the PATCO leadership and its militants. It was suicidally obtuse for federal workers with higher salaries than most taxpayers to call an illegal strike against a popular president in the midst of an economic downturn.

Unfortunately, McCartin's evenhandedness occasionally leads him to straddle controversial questions. Although he implies, for example, that had the full panoply of collective bargaining rights been imported into federal labor relations the crisis could have been averted, he never argues the point explicitly. Nor does he engage with any but the most extreme—and therefore easily dismissed—critics of public sector unionism.

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These flaws aside, Collision Course offers two important lessons. First, labor-management relations in the federal government more closely resemble those in right-to-work states of the South than in the public sector union strongholds in the North. Union rights in the federal government are more restricted and managers have far more flexibility than in states like New York or California, which have strong agency shop provisions, government dues collection, and mandatory collective bargaining on a wide range of topics. (Bear in mind state and local governments employ far more people than the federal government.)

Second, public and private sector unions emerged at different times, from different legal sources, and have followed different trajectories. Federal laws, especially the Wagner Act of 1935 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, have set the conditions for private sector unionism. Public sector unionism, on the other hand, is primarily the creation of state laws from the 1960s and 1970s. After hitting a high point in the 1950s, with about a third of the U.S. workforce belonging to unions, private sector union membership has since declined steadily. Battered by global competition, technological innovation, and political impediments, only 6.9% of private sector workers belong to unions today.

In contrast, public-employee unionism has been an island of stability: about 36% of workers in state and local government have belonged to unions since the early 1980s. That figure is likely to remain unchanged—government never goes out of business, so its unionized employees tend to stay unionized—unless governors and state legislatures can sustain Wisconsin-style reforms in the states, beginning with Wisconsin itself.