Union Faceoff

Good morning, it’s Friday, August 3, 2018. On this date in 1981, America’s 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike. Four hours later, Ronald Reagan walked into the Rose Garden flanked by Attorney General William French Smith and Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis to announce that any controller who did not return to work in 48 hours would be fired.

Like so much else in our polarized political environment, public employee unions have become a partisan issue.

A little over a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision, rendered on strict ideological lines, that a public employee union cannot charge dues — to underwrite its collective bargaining activities — to government workers who’ve opted out of the union.

The pivotal policy issue that brought this matter to the front burner — and that bedevils governors and mayors, Republicans and Democrats alike — are the over-generous pensions that have been promised to government workers. These benefits have wrecked state and local budgets and have led some Republican officeholders, most notably Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, to try and break their states’ public sector unions.

Walker’s position is, essentially, that employees paid by taxpayers have no right to collective bargaining. “I’m not negotiating,” Walker said when he launched his crusade seven years ago.

For historical support, Wisconsin’s chief executive invoked President Reagan, specifically pointing to his union-busting of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981. As the battle lines hardened in 2011, both conservative allies of Walker’s and liberal critics invoked the PATCO example. But how historically valid is this comparison?

Ronald Reagan, a former union president himself, never asserted that U.S. air traffic controllers had no right to bargain for higher wages and better benefits. In fact, in 1981, the newly inaugurated president had authorized his administration to offer the controllers a significant raise, one that had at first been accepted — then later rejected — by PATCO’s leadership.

Reagan’s record as a union leader in Hollywood, and his expressed support during the 1980 presidential campaign for the controllers and their union, had convinced PATCO president, Robert E. Poli, to swing his union’s endorsement to Reagan over President Carter. In the first months of his administration, Reagan’s budgeteers offered $40 million in increased pay and benefits to the controllers. As the differences between the two sides hardened, however, Poli threatened to lead a walkout.

In response to this tactic the administration was firm: Both federal law and the controllers’ oath upon being sworn in as employees expressly forbade them from walking off the job. Reagan instructed Drew Lewis to tell PATCO’s leadership that he would enforce this provision. In his diary, Reagan revealed how anguished he was about this turn of events, and baffled by the union’s response. The president wrote that he told Secretary Lewis to convey to Poli that “I was the best friend his people ever had in the W.H., but I would not countenance an illegal strike, nor would I permit negotiations while such a strike was in progress.”

He made good on this promise in that August 3, 1981 Rose Garden session. Reagan thanked the controllers, mostly supervisors, who were manning the nation’s airport towers that morning, explained that he had offered PATCO members twice the raise of other federal employees, and mentioned an interview he’d seen on the news with a controller at National Airport who had resigned the union and reported to work, explaining, “How can I ask my kids to obey the law if I don’t?”

Yet Reagan was equally clear in his support for the concept of collective bargaining.

“Let me make one thing plain: I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike,” he said that morning. “Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union. I guess I’m maybe the first one to ever hold this office who is a lifetime member of an AFL-CIO union.”

Then he made a clear distinction. “But we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government,” Reagan added. “Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government’s reason for being.”

The president noted that long before he’d ever come to Washington, Congress had passed a law forbidding strikes by government employees that jeopardized public safety and he read aloud the controller’s oath promising to never go on strike. Then came Reagan’s ultimatum: “It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”

As the strike played out, Reagan’s initial reluctance hardened into a kind of righteous resolve. His persistence impressed professional politicians in Washington, even those who sided with labor. But Republican chief executives and GOP members of Congress who fly home to their districts from the airport now bearing Ronald Reagan’s name, might want to contemplate the true lesson of the PATCO strike, at least as Reagan himself saw it.

The episode wasn’t, by his later estimation, necessarily the defining statement on public employee-government labor relations. But it was pivotal juncture in his presidency, as Reagan wrote in his autobiography, because “it convinced people who might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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