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Marking a Tragic Anniversary

by Joseph A. McCartin on Aug 3, 2001

Twenty years ago this week, the skies were eerily silent over American airports. On August 3, 1981, 12,500 air traffic controllers, members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), walked off their jobs with the Federal Aviation Administration. With the nation’s air traffic crippled by the walkout, President Ronald Reagan issued one of the most important statements of his presidency. He vowed to fire the controllers if they did not return to work within 48 hours. The president made good on his promise, and by doing so he helped change the course of American labor relations.

As we mark the twentieth anniversary of that historic confrontation, we live in a nation much different from the one over which Reagan presided. The Cold War is no more. The doubts about America’s strength as a world power that led many voters to embrace Reagan’s message are also long gone. And, as President Bill Clinton put it not long ago, “The era of big government” has ended. Future generations will no doubt credit these developments at least in part to the Reagan legacy. But there is a darker side to that legacy with which Americans will sooner or later have to come to terms: today we live in a society of greater inequality than Americans inhabited twenty years ago.

According to figures recently published by the Economic Policy Institute, over the past two decades wage inequality has widened continually between the highly paid 90th percentile of earners and middle-strata earners in the 50th percentile. Even the economic boom of the 1990s had no effect on narrowing that gap. The “Gini Index,” by which economists easure relative rates of inequality, also climbed from .397 in the mid-1970s to .459 by the late 1990s. As the number of millionaires in the United States grew astronomically over the last twenty years, so too did the gap between wealthy Americans and working families.

This disturbing development is linked to the PATCO debacle, for President Reagan’s unprecedented act of union-busting critically weakened the one entity best equipped to combat growing income inequality in the United States: organized labor. American unions have endured many heartbreaking losses in their history. But not since the infamous 1892 Homestead strike undermined unionism in the emerging mass production industries has any single defeat cast such a long historical shadow over organized labor. In some ways, the unions have yet to recover from the PATCO strike.

Few could dispute that Reagan’s response to PATCO broke a decades-old taboo in American industrial relations.  Although the courts had long interpreted the 1935 Wagner Act as allowing the permanent replacement of strikers, few employers had exercised this option before 1981. Flagrant union busting was widely viewed as unethical and un-American. Reagan changed that. In the years after the strike, Phelps-Dodge, Hormel and other large companies joined a growing list of private employers who replaced strikers.  Meanwhile, legislative efforts to ban such behavior failed.

The smashing of the PATCO strike marked the moment when workers lost the ability to wield their most potent weapon: the strike. Between 1947 and 1980, the Bureau of Labor Statistics annually reported at least 180 strikes involving more than 1,000 workers each. Since 1982, the number of such strikes has never once reached even half that level. Figures show a sharp decline from the 235 strikes involving a total of one million workers in 1979 to a record low of 17 walkouts, involving only 73,000 workers, in 1999. Between 1947 and 1980, the United States averaged 300 major strikes annually. But since 1981 the average has been only 47.

For the union movement, there is obviously not much to celebrate in these numbers. In the context of a globalizing economy, the near total loss of the strike weapon has had devastating repercussions for labor. When PATCO walked out twenty years ago, unions claimed just under a quarter of American wage earners as members. Today only 13.5 percent of the nation’s workforce is unionized. Despite the best efforts of AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, the unions have yet to reverse this trend.

But union workers are not the only ones who ought to be troubled by labor’s declining power. In the 20th century, a strong labor movement played a critical role in elevating the standard of living of not only its members, but tens of millions of nonunion workers who benefited from the rising wages and generous benefits won by unionized workers. It is no coincidence that as the labor movement’s strength has declined, social inequality has advanced. Therefore, as we mark the anniversary of the PATCO strike this week, it would be an appropriate time for Americans to consider how we might reverse these dangerous trends. Unless we reverse them, such trends threaten to erode the quality of American democracy.


Joseph A. McCartin teaches history at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and a writer for the History News Service. He is currently writing a book on the PATCO strike.