It was 26 years ago this month that Ronald Reagan struck the blow that sent the American labor movement tumbling into a decline
it's still struggling mightily to reverse.
Reagan, one of the most anti-labor presidents in history, set the decline in motion by firing 11,500 of the overworked
and underpaid air traffic controllers whose work was essential to the operation of the world's most complex aviation system.
Reagan fired them because they dared respond to his administration's refusal to bargain fairly on a new contract by striking
in violation of the law prohibiting strikes by federal employees. What's more, he also destroyed their union, the Professional
Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).
Public and private employers everywhere treated Reagan's action as a signal to take an uncompromising stand against the
unions that they had accepted and bargained with, however reluctantly, as the legitimate representatives of their workers.
At that time, one-fourth of the U.S. workforce was represented by unions. Today, largely because of employer actions since
then -- often openly illegal actions - the percentage of workers with union bargaining rights is less than half that.
Ironically, PATCO had broken with other AFL-CIO affiliates to endorse Reagan's successful run for president in 1980. The
union did so because Reagan had promised to "take whatever steps are necessary" to improve working conditions and
otherwise "bring about a spirit of cooperation between the president and the air traffic controllers."
Yet PATCO negotiators were rebuffed a year later when they asked for a reduction in working hours, lowering of the retirement
age and other steps to ease the controllers' extraordinary stress, plus a substantial pay raise and updated equipment.
PATCO had no choice but to abandon its demands or strike to try to enforce them. And when the union struck, Reagan, certain
of broad public support because of his great popularity, issued an ultimatum to the strikers: Return to work within 48 hours
or be fired and replaced permanently by non-union workers.
Faced with millions of dollars in fines for violating Reagan's order and the anti-strike injunctions that his administration
and airlines had sought, and stripped by the administration of its right to represent the controllers, PATCO declared bankruptcy
and went out of business.
Although Reagan's ban on re-hiring strikers was later lifted by Bill Clinton, and a stronger new union now represents
controllers, safety experts say the air traffic control system remains understaffed and the controllers still under far too
That's unlikely to change during the administration of George Bush, who's as anti-labor as was Ronald Reagan. The Bush
administration, in fact, has imposed a new contract on the controllers that cuts their pay and pension benefits.
Neither is it likely that other employers will abandon the crippling anti-labor practices that were inspired and furthered
Firing and permanently replacing strikers, previously a rare occurrence, has become a common employer tactic. It's now
the strike - an indispensable weapon for workers in collective bargaining - that only rarely occurs.
It isn't just strikers who face penalties for exercising their legal rights. Employers also have taken to firing or otherwise
penalizing workers who seek union recognition, despite the law that promises them the right to freely choose unionization.
Many employers have also hired " management consultants" who specialize in Reagan-style union-busting.
"For all practical purposes, Americans have lost the freedom to form unions," notes AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.
"Our labor laws are so weak and so feebly enforced that workers join the union in spite of the law."
It's no coincidence that as union ranks have shrunk under the relentless anti-labor pressures first applied to air traffic
controllers a quarter-century ago by Ronald Reagan, the ranks of the American middle class also have shrunk -- as has the
ordinary American's share of the country's wealth.
Copyright (c) Dick Meister