On the 30th anniversary of the showdown between Ronald Reagan and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), McCartin (History/Georgetown Univ.; Labor’s Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-1921, 1998, etc.) revisits the most consequential labor dispute since the New Deal.
As a two-time governor of California, Ronald Reagan regularly bargained with public-service employees and, as president (the only one in American history ever to have helmed a union), he offered PATCO, one of the few labor organizations to endorse his candidacy, an unprecedented contract in 1981. When PATCO rejected the proposal and called an illegal strike, Reagan issued a 48 hour return-to-work ultimatum. He ended up firing the vast majority of the more than 10,000 highly specialized controllers, destroyed PATCO and set a precedent that continues to reverberate. An expert on the labor movement, McCartin reviews the origins and evolution of public-sector unions—once universally decried, even by iconic liberal presidents—outlines and translates for the general reader the applicable laws and delivers a detailed history of PATCO from its 1968 founding to its demise. Demonstrating a thorough understanding of PATCO’s culture, the author powerfully describes the high-pressure world of air-traffic control, examines the historically contentious relations between the controllers and the hidebound FAA and charts PATCO’s increasing militancy, even as a powerful anti-union backlash gathered in the country. Although his union sympathies are clear, McCartin, for the most part, plays it straight, relying on extensive interviews with government and union officials, rank-and-file members, pilots, airline executives and politicians to get the full story behind this dramatic confrontation. Breaking the strike proved more expensive to the federal government than meeting the controllers’ demands. But the chilling effect of Reagan’s swift dismissal of seemingly indispensable workers has proven more costly to organized labor.
With the collective-bargaining power of public employees under fierce assault, McCartin’s story couldn’t be timelier or more important.