Among Republican presidential hopefuls, Reagan's breaking of the PATCO strike continues to loom large. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has also made allusions to the PATCO story. In an appearance at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on September 27, 2011, Christie Christie told his "favorite Reagan story":
The speech in which Christie told this story was one that was touted as giving Christie's foreign policy views. Tellingly, Christie's foreign policy speech never mentioned Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan, and said precious little about the state of the world. Instead it dwelt on the PATCO strike as a moment when America sent a message of strength to the world in the Reagan era. The breaking of the strike was, in Christie's view, apparently foreign policy triumph above all else.For me, that story happened thirty years ago, in August 1981. The air traffic controllers, in violation of their contracts, went on strike. President Reagan ordered them back to work, making clear that those who refused would be fired. In the end, thousands refused, and thousands were fired.I cite this incident not as a parable of labor relations but as a parable of principle. Ronald Reagan was a man who said what he meant and meant what he said. Those who thought he was bluffing were sadly mistaken. Reagan’s demand was not an empty political play; it was leadership, pure and simple....I recall this pivotal moment for another reason as well. Most Americans at the time and since no doubt viewed Reagan’s firm handling of the PATCO strike as a domestic matter, a confrontation between the president and a public sector union. But this misses a critical point. To quote a phrase from another American moment, the whole world was watching.
Recently, Scott Walker doubled down on this view. In an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Feb. 21, 2015, Walker argued that the Reagan's handling of the PATCO strike was one of the "most powerful foreign policy decisions" of the last half century:
One of the most powerful foreign policy decisions I think that was made in our lifetime was one that Ronald Reagan made early in his presidency when he fired the air traffic controllers which would seem to be a solely domestic policy but what it did was it showed our allies around the world that we were serious and more importantly ... to our adversaries that we were serious. Years later, documents released in the Soviet Union showed that that exactly was the case. The Soviet Union started treating him more seriously once he did something like that. Ideas have to have consequences.In fact, no such Soviet era documents referred to by Walker actually exist, as an investigation by Politifact found.
In her Wall Street Journal column on Feb. 28, 2015 former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan took issue with aspects of Walker's story, including his allusion to Soviet documents that have never been found. Even in doing so, however, she herself mischaracterized PATCO's story. Twice in her column she claimed controllers sought a 100 percent increase in pay in 1981. That is far from true.
PATCO's story continues to be told in twisted ways by most public figures that invoke it. While the Reaganites themselves were hopeful that the PATCO story would have an impact on the Soviets--as I say in my book and as Walker and Christie suggest--there is no documentary evidence that it had the supposedly intended effect. It is notable that those who trumpet the strike as a foreign policy triumph have much less experience in foreign policy than they do in making war against public sector unions and collective bargaining. I suspect that in their misty image of Reagan, neither Walker nor Christie can wrap their minds around the fact that Reagan was less opposed to unions in the public sector than they have been. Unlike Walker, Reagan never concluded that public sector collective bargaining itself was misguided. He simply believed that an illegal strike by federal workers could not be tolerated.