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:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Calling Bob Poli

Occasionally I get a letter from a former PATCO member who inquires about Bob Poli, who led the union during the 1981 strikeI was not able to interview Bob Poli for my book.  The letters I sent to the addresses I had for him were not answered and those who offered to contact him on my behalf were unable to put us together.  He has tended to guard his privacy in recent years: he did not come to the two PATCO reunions I attended.   (Poli's son, Robert P. Poli, did drop in to meet me after the book was published, however, and I signed a copy for him.)  I heard recently from Larry Sawatzki, of Kansas City, who told me that he wanted to reach out to Poli.  His letter and its postscript is representative of many that I've gotten from strikers.  I'll reprint his letter below with his permission

Dear Professor McCartin,

My name is Larry Sawatzki.  I was a member of PATCO Local 332, MCI TRACON, Kansas City, MO.  I was hired by the FAA in 1973 after four years in the Navy.  I was an active member of the union, serving as facility rep in Kansas City, as well as terminal voting representative for the central region at the last two PATCO conventions.  I was a friend of Jack Maher, Mike Rock, and Gary Eads, as well as many others you mentioned in your book.  I was with Bob Poli in the lobby of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel on election night 1980.  When the national news networks projected Reagan as the winner we, along with numerous colleagues, proceeded to celebrate.