Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Peggy Noonan, and the Misuses of History

Almost 34 years later, the PATCO story lives on as fodder for politicians.  In Collision Course, I wrote about Gov. Scott Walker's references to Reagan's handling of the PATCO strike as an inspiration for his attack on public sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin, which led to the passage of Act 10 in 2011. 
     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":
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.
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. 
     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.  

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.