Friday, December 16, 2011

Remembering in the House of Labor

I was honored to have an opportunity to speak about Collision Course on December 14 in the Samuel Gompers room at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO in an event hosted by the labor federation's president, Richard Trumka.  With me were two former PATCO strikers who lost their jobs in 1981, Elliott Simons, who worked then at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and Jim Morin, who worked at LaGuardia Airport in New York, as well as Ken Moffett, who headed the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in 1981, and who hosted the failed negotiations that preceded the controllers' walkout.  It was an emotional event for some of those who had been around in 1981.  Some PATCO strikers felt cut off from the rest of the labor movement thirty years ago, and for them it

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Offer PATCO Rejected: Answering a Query

Recently, I had a very good set of questions directed to me by a PATCO brother, whose knowledge and views I respect, asking about the way I characterized the offer that the Reagan administration made to the union in June 1981 (the offer the union ultimately voted down before deciding to strike).  This brother was skeptical about my account characterizing the offer as precedent-setting.  He remembered the offer as adding nothing at all to what controllers had prior to the strike.  My dialogue with him reminded me that the disjuncture between the way controllers saw the June offer (as giving them very little indeed) and the way neutral observers like the federal mediators Ken Moffett and Brian Flores saw it (they saw it as path-breaking) is one of the enduring puzzles of the PATCO story for those who want to understand the strike.  Which was it?  Path-breaking or completely inadequate?  In fact, as I discovered and explain in my book, the June offer was both.  Explaining this paradox helps put to rest two bogus myths about the strike: 1) that it was the result of controller greed and union overreach on the one hand; or 2) that it was the fruit of a prearranged plan by the Reagan people to trap and destroy PATCO as a way to undermine organized labor altogether.  In fact, neither of these myths is true.   The reality was more complicated, and more tragic.  To explain it, let me begin with the memo pictured above, which was written from Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis to White House counselor, Ed Meese, on June 11, 1981. (To follow this, read below the jump.) 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

One of the "Oklahoma City Five" Remembers

Among the most difficult things that striking air traffic controllers faced in 1981 was the prospect of prosecution for violating the law and leading a work stoppage against the United States government.   In the book, I wrote this about the emotions that one controller's family felt in confronting this prospect:  "As the clocked ticked down toward the strike vote, many tearful conversations took place in controllers' families.  'Daddy may even have to go to jail,' the wife of one Vermont controller told her children.  If he did, they should not 'be ashamed,' she said.  Instead, they should 'be very proud of him,' because if that happened it would be 'for a great cause.'"  
    In reality, of course, the prospect of defying the federal government was frightening, no matter how deeply one believed in the cause.   Recently, I received two e-mails from a controller who did defy the government on August 3, 1981, and suffered for it.  His name is Tim Berlekamp; he is currently President and CEO of Altec Limited, a consulting company that provides sustainable business solutions.  In 1981 he was one of the "Oklahoma City Five," a group of five strikers who were singled out and prosecuted for their actions (such prosecutions happened in a number of cities).  His reflections appear below the jump:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

An Actor/Musician Reflects on PATCO, Unions, and Strikes

This week I received an inspiring note from a former student of mine from back when I taught at SUNY-Geneseo.  His name is Lucas Papaelias, and he now makes his living as an actor and musician in New York City.   Lucas was moved by my account of the PATCO strike to talk about his own recent experiences during the 2007 strike by Broadway stagehands, members of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.  He explains why he supported that strike, even though it might have potentially cost him a chance to appear in a high-profile production with stars Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner.  He tells that story, goes on to explain how his other union, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, came to his rescue in another dispute, and reflects on the importance of unions for all workers.  Here is what he wrote: 
i was unaware of the scope of the '81 PATCO strike.... i think it is an incredible subject matter and a true American story. it is inspiring, and got me to think of my own experiences.

in fall 2007, at the same time the Screen Actors Guild Writers strike was in full-swing, there was also an unprecedented strike conducted by the Local 1 stagehands union, which shut down most of Broadway for several weeks during november. the Actors Equity Association (my union since '00) was in full support of the strike, which affected me directly; i was making my Broadway debut at the time in a production of Cyrano de

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Launch Event at Georgetown, Oct. 18, 2011

At Georgetown University on October 18, 2011, I (standing at left) led a discussion with a distinguished panel of people whose interviews helped shape my book.  Seated from left are: Jim Stakem, strike leader at Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center (Washington Center) in 1981; Ken Moffett, Reagan-era director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service who mediated the failed 1981 negotiations; Stan Gordon, who helped organize PATCO at New York Center in Islip, New York, in 1968; Richard Jones, formerly of Washington Center, who co-founded the Coalition of Black Controllers but did not participate in the 1981 strike; and John Leyden, who served as president of PATCO from 1970 to 1980. 
     We had a fascinating exchange regarding the strike and its long-term impact on both the controllers who lost their jobs in 1981 and on patterns of U.S. labor relations since.  For more on that event, click here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

From the PATCO Strike to the Wall Street Occupation

Thirty years later, it is clear that the PATCO strike was a turning point in recent U.S. history.  Will the Occupy Wall Street protests one day be seen as an equally important turning point, but of a different kind?   And why has organized labor, which has traditionally refrained from participating in leaderless protests of this sort, begun to lend some support to this movement.  I consider these questions in a recent blog post at Oxford University Press. To read it, click here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Case of Ron Palmer

On page 233 of my book, I included a few sentences about the case of Ron Palmer, a Miami controller who was accused in 1980 of giving an instruction to a Braniff pilot that pointed him into a thunderstorm in retaliation for Braniff's refusal to honor controllers' requests for familiarization flights on the airline.  I pointed out that an arbitrator looked into this case and cleared Palmer of the charge, which would have cost him his job had it been substantiated.  But FAA officials distrusted the arbitrator's judgement and saw the case as one more example of growing militancy in the controller ranks.  Now Ron Palmer, whom I had not had an opportunity to meet or interview before writing the book, has written to me to provide more documentation for his case than I was able to find in the records of PATCO or the FAA.  He sent me his explanation of what happened and an interview from the period that further explains how he came to be accused and nearly fired.  His story helps illustrate why so many controllers felt that the FAA was the aggressor in the year leading up to the strike, and why so many felt that they had to stand up to what they felt was government mistreatment.  His communication with me and a link to the documentation appears below the fold. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

An Unheeded Warning from 1969

Reader William Daugherty, a former air traffic controller, and a charter member of PATCO wrote to me to explain that the book brought back many memories.  One was of a 35-page report he himself had written in 1969 analyzing the growing conflict between the FAA and controllers and warning of its  consequences.  The paper was titled: "Air Traffic Controllers vs. the Federal Aviation Administration: Underlying Causes of Low Morale." He wrote it in the aftermath of the abortive sickout that controllers in a handful of FAA facilities launched in June 1969 in protest of the FAA's failure to honor promises made to PATCO during the previous summer.  That sickout, as I point out in my book, marked a sharp deterioration in labor relations at the FAA and led to a much larger job action in 1970.  In his report, Daugherty asks why the situation at the FAA  "has become intolerable to a dedicated group of air traffic controllers that historically have shown that they can operate a complex aviation system under adverse conditions?"  Unfortunately, Daugherty's warning went unheeded.  To read this interesting document in full, click here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Heartfelt Letter

I received a heartfelt e-mail from Ben Coons this week.  Ben worked as an air traffic controller at the Minneapolis ARTCC (Minneapolis Center), one of the biggest air traffic control facilities in the Midwest from 1970 to August 3, 1981, when he went out on strike.  To the left is a copy of his PATCO membership card.  Ben was a former president of PATCO Local 305.   Like a number of people I interviewed, he had doubts about the strike strategy, but he respected the picket line.  He also had doubts about PATCO's leadership, but he had no doubt that the built up frustration of the union's rank and file led to the strike.  "My biggest regret with the strike is what it has done to labor and the middle class," he wrote. "I firmly believe the transfer of wealth to the upper class and the loss of the middle class started with the PATCO strike in 1981.  At this point in time I'm not sure if anything can reverse the trend without a full scale labor push back."
       The people like Ben whom I interviewed for this book made a big impression on me.  They were people who were not the most outspoken advocates of a strike, people who believed that Reagan's Rose Garden speech on the morning the strike began made it unwinnable, but who nonetheless would not go back to work unless everyone went back.  They were prepared to put their careers on the line in an effort to protect their colleagues in the belief that all would stand a better chance of going back if they stuck together.  No matter what one's opinion of the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike, it's hard not to have some admiration for folks like Ben.  It seems to me that these are the kinds of people we'd want working together, watching each other's backs to keep the air traffic control system safe.  

Here is most of his letter to me in which he refers to John Leyden, president of PATCO 1970-80, Robert Poli, president of PATCO 1980-81, who took the reins of the union from Leyden, to his own experience preparing colleagues for the strike, and to his frustrations with his old employer, the Federal Aviation Administration: 

Professor McCartin,

When I learned of your book via the PATCO web site I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read it.  I haven’t been to any of the many August 3rd reunions and I haven’t kept touch with many of my old colleagues.  Shortly after the strike I was somewhat embarrassed in not being able to explain adequately why we struck and how disastrous the outcome.  

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Striker and a Non-Striker Agree

One of the things I tried to do in this book was to give a 360 degree view of why this strike came about, why nearly 12,000 people risked not only their jobs, but their careers by walking out, and why several thousand of their coworkers did not join them.  Here are reactions to the book from one who struck and one who did not.

From Denny Harris, who was a "Horse" (a controller who participated in PATCO's 1970 sickout) at LA Center in Palmdale, Calif., and leader of PATCO at Seattle Center from which he was fired for his participation in the 1981 strike:

First off, Thank you for writing this book.  As a former president of Seattle Center (1972-1974) I was the one who won a successful de-certifying  effort, followed by certification of PATCO at that facility.  I was a HORSE in 1970, and a strike leader in '81.  Over time it has been increasingly hard to explain our efforts to family and especially friends of the whats and whys of our strike.  This book explains what went on extremely well.  Again thank you for your efforts in this book, brought back a lot of memories of times and friends.   Denny Harris  Class of '81.
Denny also forwarded to me a clipping (left) of himself and two of his co-workers at Seattle Center receiving the FAA's "We Point with Pride" award for saving the lives of a husband, wife, and infant child in an air emergency. He's the guy on the left.  This clip gives you a sense of the talent that was lost in the mass firing.  If you'd like to read the clip, click here.     

And from Alvin DeVane, retired air traffic controller, who did not strike in '81:
Professor McCartin, I just finished reading Collision Course and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it.
    I was hired by the FAA in 1974 and was a journeyman controller in San Antonio in August of 1981. After much soul searching, I chose not to strike.  Your book brought back memories and feelings I had not felt in a long time. From what I know and remember, you were right on target in Collision Course.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reaction from a Fired Controller

As people have a chance to read the book, I would like to provide room for them to share their reactions, particularly if they participated in or were directly affected by the events of 1981.  I received this e-mail today from Elliott Simons.  Elliott was a controller who served as the spokesperson for PATCO's local at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in 1981 and he lost his job for striking.  He has agreed to let me post this message and a link to an article he wrote explaining his actions back in 1981.  Perhaps others will want to also share their stories with me:  

Dr. McCartin,

I was vacationing when you did the Diane Rehm show, but someone sent me the link so I could listen to it.  Thank you for doing the research and writing the book.

Had I been listening that day I would not have been able to resist calling in with my anecdote: I joined the FAA in 1975, and new employees heard about the PATCO sickout right away to 'encourage' us to join the union.  I did, but when the stike talk began I was skeptical.  I attended a PATCO convention in Washington probably in early 1981, and I heard John Leyden say that 'even if PATCO got the required 80-percent participation for a strike it would not do so unless the political and economic conditions were right.'  That convinced me that this man knew what he was doing, and with those conditions I provided my support.  Then a couple of things happened.  First, Reagan

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

With PATCO Veterans on a Night to Remember

Thirty years ago tonight, the final hours of PATCO's strike deadline ticked down. I had an opportunity to spend the evening with veterans of the 1981 walkout, members of PATCO, the revived remnant of the organization that struck thirty years ago. It was a most unusual gathering and it led to a rich discussion. Here is an excerpt of the text I wrote for my remarks to them:

Thank you. It is an honor to be here with all of you on what is really in some ways quite a solemn occasion. Thirty years ago, at around this hour you and your colleagues began to gather in your cluster meetings, as your negotiators sat down across the table from President Ronald Reagan’s representatives in the offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington. Having now interviewed more than 100 of you, having spoken with members of your leadership then, the mediators, and the Reagan Administration’s key representatives, I can say that everyone concerned already knew at this time thirty years ago that what was about to happen could be momentous. But, of course, no one then knew exactly how momentous it would be.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Advance Comments on COLLISION COURSE

“The Air Traffic Controllers strike of 1981 was one of the most important struggles in American history, and by breaking the union, Ronald Reagan dealt a blow to the labor movement from which it has still not recovered. If you care about the labor movement, you need to read Collision Course—and even if you don’t, you’ll be transfixed by the drama of McCartin’s story-telling.”
E. J. Dionne, syndicated columnist, author of Why Americans Hate Politics

Collision Course is a powerfully moving account of one of the signal events in twentieth century labor history. With empathy and exquisite story-telling skill, McCartin captures a history with powerful resonance as we look to the future of collective bargaining."
Alice Kessler-Harris, author of In Pursuit of Equity
“The signal event in the evisceration of the American middle class was Ronald Reagan’s breaking the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. In Collision Course, Joe McCartin brilliantly and compellingly tells this tragic tale, and situates it in the broader narrative of middle-class America’s long and sickening decline.”
Harold Meyerson, Editor-at-Large of The American Prospect and op-ed columnist for The Washington Post.

“This brilliant book puts Joe McCartin’s prodigious talents on full display. From its harrowing opening to its elegiac conclusion, Collision Course exposes the toxic blend of economics, politics, and hubris that turned the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike into one of the pivotal moments in recent American history.”
Kevin Boyle, Ohio State University, National Book Award winning author of Arc of Justice

"By firing the air traffic controllers, and successfully replacing them, Reagan heralded the end of a political era when labor unions—and the workers they represented—were an integral part of the American social contract. Joseph McCartin tells the story in gripping detail. It’s must reading for anyone interested in the recent history of American politics and labor relations.”