When the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation unveiled a statue of the 40th president of the United States in front of Terminal A Washington's Reagan National Airport at 11 a.m. this morning, not everyone celebrated. Among those who withheld their applause were thousands of former air traffic controllers who walked off their jobs at that airport and across the country thirty years ago and were fired and permanently replaced by Reagan. Equally unmoved are many millions more who now protest the growing income inequality in the America Reagan helped to shape.
Ronald Reagan's stand against the strike called by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), helped define both his presidency and a dangerous new direction in labor relations. The controllers' walkout was clearly illegal; federal workers do not have the right to strike. But PATCO's protest was not unprecedented. Some 39 work stoppages by federal workers were registered in the years between 1960 and 1981. Some, like the 1970 walkout by postal workers, were quite large. (The National Guard had to deliver the mail in many states when tens of thousands of postal workers walked out to protest low pay and other grievances). Within days of the postal strike, more than 3,000 members of PATCO had also struck in 1970 under the guise of a mass sickout to protest the efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to weaken their recently established union. In neither of those cases did mass firings result. Reagan decisively changed that pattern.
Reagan's response to the 1981 PATCO was both swift and sweeping. The controllers struck at 7 a.m. on August 3, 1981. Citing a broken pledge of support that candidate Reagan had given their union the previous October in return for their endorsement of his candidacy, the PATCO strikers pledged not to return to work until the government improved their salaries and shortened their workweek. Four hours later, Reagan strode into the Rose Garden, and warned the controllers over national television that if they did not return to work within 48 hours they would be "terminated." Few strikers heeded his warning; the rest were fired and banned from returning to employment at the FAA. Since the rise of the industrial union movement in the 1930s, no employer had broken a major strike more decisively.
Reagan's action was both legal and politically popular -- at least at first. The PATCO strikers had erred in unwisely forcing a president into a showdown, and badly timing their walkout. Air traffic controllers earned a median salary of roughly $31,000 in 1981 -- above the national median. Although there was some merit in their claim that they were poorly compensated in comparison to their partners in air safety -- pilots -- the controllers sought significant salary increases and a shortened workweek at a time when the country was beginning to slide into recession. Even many union workers thought these demands unjustified.
But it was not Reagan's decision to fire the controllers that makes the unveiling of his airport statue today controversial. It was rather Reagan's decision to show no mercy to the strikers once he had defeated their walkout that makes his handling of this affair a source of controversy thirty years later.
It did not have to play out this way. Once it was clear that Reagan had broken PATCO weeks into the strike, public opinion called for the president to show mercy and rehire those who had struck out of loyalty to their coworkers but had not led the walkout. This view was held not only by trade unionists and liberals. Conservative columnist William Safire advised Reagan to "demonstrate that American justice is not only swift and certain but that it can be tempered by a willingness to offer a second chance." Significantly, Reagan rejected all such entreaties. Not only did his administration refuse to hire back any who had been terminated, it went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that individual strikers would never get their jobs back through the appeals process and that no legislation would ever be enacted that would result in the rehiring of even a fraction of those fired, despite the enormous costs of replacing them.
The relentlessness of Reagan's treatment of the PATCO strikers set the real lasting precedent of 1981, laying the groundwork for the sort of economy that has emerged since then. By refusing to rehire any strikers despite appeals from fellow Republicans like Safire, Reagan broke a moral taboo that had restrained private sector employers from going all out in their own conflicts with their unions. Thus he opened the door to new era of aggressive anti-unionism, which has cut union membership rates in half in thirty years. While the surging levels of income inequality that have led to recent protest on Wall Street and elsewhere cannot be attributed solely to Reagan's busting of PATCO, no other event of the last thirty years better symbolized the shift in power that has led to this inequality. So as Reagan's followers cheer the unveiling of a new nine-foot statue in his honor, others rightly point to less attractive monument etched in the growing chasm between this nation's rich and the rest -- a monument whose dimensions continue to grow.
Joseph A. McCartin is associate professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.