Monday, September 22, 2014

The Passing of Robert Poli

Robert E. Poli, who led the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) during their strike in 1981 died at his home in Idaho on September 15, 2014 at the age of 78.
   I am sorry that I never had an opportunity to interview Bob Poli.  As I explained in an earlier blog, he never followed up on letters I wrote or messages that I tried to send him through intermediaries.  But I was not the only person who found him reluctant to relive the memories of the 1981 strike.  Most of those in the union who were close to him during his presidency and at the time of the strike also found that he pulled back from them in the years since they walked out together and into history.  In an obituary in the New York Times today, Bob's son Rob reflected on his father's life and the legacy the strike left for his family.   As William Yardley, the obituary writer, explained:
    Rob Poli said that he sometimes challenged his father on the wisdom of the strike, but that his father would not yield, citing the vote of the union members.
“That wasn’t his intention when he ran for president, that ‘I’m going to become president and I’m going to take this union out on strike,’ ” Rob Poli said. “I think the difference was, he wasn’t afraid of being the person out there and doing it.”
“I’m very proud of him,” he added. “He was a good guy just trying to do what he thought was right and kind of got boxed into a corner. He used to always say, ‘Oh, Robbie, if that had worked out, it would have been the greatest thing in the world.’ ”
The full obituary can be viewed here.  

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Bob Butterworth, was a PATCO leader in the San Francisco Bay Area when the strike occurred on August 3, 1981.  He was fired for defying President Ronald Reagan's ultimatum.  He later regained employment with the FAA as an Air Traffic Controller after President Bill Clinton lifted the ban on the rehiring of PATCO strikers, and he became an activist in the union that succeeded PATCO at the FAA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.  Butterworth, known as "Pres," to many of his PATCO-era friends and colleagues, was one of the most important subjects I interviewed for Collision Course.  In a guest blog written for this Labor Day he gives his perspective on PATCO as a product of the turbulent 1960.

The Air traffic controllers strike in 1981 by members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) has become the battle cry for Unionism both private and public.  The reaction to this strike by Ronald Reagan with the firing of 11,000 controllers has become a rallying point for union organizing.  So where did it all start?
Prior to 1968 most Air traffic Controllers were former military controllers that had become all too familiar with the military management style and were not surprised to find a continuation of that dictatorship manner of supervision present when they were hired by the FAA.  It was dealt with in a “What choice do we have” kind of mentality with an added fear of the consequences of speaking out against such demeaning and counter-productive supervision.  “After all, we work for the government, we can’t organize!”  This feeling was prevalent among many government employees well beyond Air Traffic Controllers, at that time.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The PATCO Strike and the Current Controversy about the NLRB

The PATCO strike's influence still resonates.  I was a guest on the Diane Rehm Show today on National Public Radio.  The subject was the recent controversy concerning Republican efforts to block President Obama's appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (which was resolved two days ago by a compromise in the Senate).  I shared the studio with Lynn Rhinehart of the AFL-CIO and James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation. 
      Although the PATCO strike took place outside of NLRB jurisdiction
 (federal workers are outside of its purview) and despite the fact that it occurred over 30 years ago, among the things we talked about today was the way that strike helped lead to the polarization that now afflicts the U.S. labor relations.  It is getting harder to recall a time when workers' rights to collectively bargain enjoyed a good measure of bipartisan support.  Today the partisan divide on that issue seems wider than it's ever been.  You can listen to the show at the link here

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


I'm grateful to LABOR: STUDIES IN WORKING-CLASS HISTORY OF THE AMERICAS for organizing a Bookmark forum on Collision Course.  In that forum, I was honored to have my book discussed by four smart and knowledgeable people: Jack Metzgar, whose own book on the 1959 steel strike is one of the best ruminations ever written about a strike; Liesl Orenic, a fellow laborer in the vineyards of aviation labor history, from whose work I have learned so much; Rosemary Feurer, whose book Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950 demonstrated a keen understanding of internal labor dynamics of the sort that I wrote about; and Dave Sapadin, a former air traffic controller who lived through some of the events in the book.  LABOR Online, the blog of the Labor and Working Class History Association has posted the contributions to this forum this week along with an introduction by Rosemary.  You can find it here.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

F. Lee Bailey Back in the News

The attorney F. Lee Bailey, who played a crucial role in forming and building the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) during the years 1968-1970, was back in the news this week.  Bailey, who has relocated to Maine, sought admission to the bar there (he had been disbarred in Massachusetts and Florida in the early 2000s).  Bailey passed the Maine bar exam last year (I last spoke with him when he was studying for that exam), but this week it became public that the State of Maine Board of Bar Examiners ruled on his application and voted 5-4 to reject it.  The majority ruled that "Mr. Bailey has not met his burden of demonstrating by clear and convincing evidence that he possesses the requisite good character and fitness necessary for admission to the Maine Bar."  For more on this story, check this in the Lewiston Auburn Sun-Journal.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The FAA Explains Air Traffic Control (1963)

This public relations video produced in 1963 by the Federal Aviation Agency (the predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration) gives a sense of how air traffic control worked in the years when air traffic controllers first began to organize.  The visuals here say a lot about FAA culture, the homogeneous composition of the controller workforce, and the the way technology worked in those days.  While the video might seem hokey in some ways when looked at from today's perspective, it evinces a level of respect for the vital role that federal workers play in the nation's life that seems all to absent from today's public discourse.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mike Rock Tells the Story of PATCO's Origins

This week will mark the 31st anniversary of the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike.  With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to post an interesting bit of historical memorabilia.   This is a video of PATCO co-founder Mike Rock taken on January 10, 1979, as he told the story of the origins of the air traffic controllers' union, recounting the working conditions controllers faced in the 1960s and the long struggle that led them to decide to form their own organization.  The film was made at the AFL-CIO's training center in Silver Spring, Maryland, as Rock spoke to PATCO activists who were beginning the union's preparations for the 1981 contract expiration.  The quality of the video isn't the greatest.  It was preserved and copied several times by Mike's friend, and PATCO legend Jack Maher (who passes briefly across the screen in the videos opening moment).  But Jack gave it to me with the hope that it would help explain why he and Mike and their colleagues began organizing in the first place.  This is the opening excerpt of a several hours worth of history that Rock shared with his PATCO colleagues in 1979.  I cut off this segment just before Rock recounted PATCO's founding.  I'll be posting more of the Rock lectures once I edit them.  Enjoy: