Ron Briley: Review of Joseph McCartin's "Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America" (Oxford, 2011)


Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In December 2012, the state of Michigan, long a bastion for organized labor, enacted right-to-work legislation; following the examples of neighboring Midwestern states Wisconsin and Ohio, which placed limitations on the collective bargaining rights of public unions -- albeit the Ohio legislation was overturned in a state referendum. To provide some historical perspective on the difficulties confronting public unions and the labor movement in general, one would do well to consult Joseph A. McCartin’s Collision Course, chronicling the rise of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and its demise in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan fired striking members of the union.

McCartin, associate professor of history at Georgetown University, argues that the failed PATCO strike proved to be devastating to unionism in both the public and private sectors. McCartin writes, “PATCO’s destruction marked the end of one of organized labor’s most reliable weapons: the strike. Occurring at a vulnerable moment in U.S. working-class history, the PATCO debacle catalyzed a revival of strikebreaking that helped marginalize the strike as a feature of American labor relations by the end of the twentieth century” (342). And labor’s decline has continued into the twenty-first century, although some labor activists believe that business and management in cahoots with conservative politicians have overplayed their hand and resurrected the union movement in the United States.

McCartin begins his well-crafted history with the December 16, 1960 mid-air collision between United Airlines Flight 286 and Trans World Airlines Flight 266 over New York City. Following this tragic accident, airplane controllers such as Jack Maher and Mike Rock moved to form an organization that would challenge the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation of America’s airways which the controllers viewed as increasingly dangerous. The FAA preferred that controllers address their concerns through a professional organization such as the Air Traffic Controllers Association rather than a labor union. The labor orientation of Maher and Rock was encouraged in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 0988, which allowed federal workers to form unions and negotiate with management; however, federal public unions were denied the right to strike on behalf of their grievances.

After initially affiliating with the National Association of Government Employees, controllers believed that they needed an organization of their own to deal with the powerful FAA. Accordingly, in 1968 flamboyant lawyer F. Lee Bailey was tapped to lead PATCO as the organization’s executive director. Bailey’s tenure, however, was short lived as controllers in 1969 took control of their organization by electing one of their own, John Leyden, as president of PATCO. McCartin maintains that PATCO rapidly evolved into a full-fledged union due to the controllers’ animosity toward the FAA. While forbidden by law to strike, PATCO found that “slow downs” in key airports could raise havoc with air travel. A 1970 “sick out” by thousands of controllers demonstrated the power of the labor organization and gained concessions from the FAA.

McCartin describes the members of PATCO as primarily military veterans from working-class families who perceived the challenging profession of an aircraft controller as their ticket into the middle class. Also, as McCartin notes, PATCO was not exactly a diverse organization -- with few women or African Americans within its ranks -- nor did older members always understand the anti-establishment politics and attitudes of a younger generation that was a product of the Vietnam War.

This increasingly militant attitude would lead PATCO into a confrontation with the FAA. In 1980, union members ousted John Leyden in favor of Robert Poli, who vowed to take a more aggressive stance and focus upon significant wage hikes for PATCO members. While this action placed PATCO on a collision course with Reagan, McCartin does not demonize the conservative president. In fact, McCartin observes that Reagan was the first union member to ascend to the presidency, and his labor record as governor of California was fairly moderate. Taking note of this record and disenchanted with the administration of President Jimmy Carter, PATCO leadership endorsed Reagan, who hoped to pick up some labor support which Carter had squandered.

Initially, PATCO’s embracing of Reagan appeared to provide considerable benefits for the union. Despite federal limitations on collective bargaining, Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis negotiated a deal with PATCO that included a five percent increase in base pay along with other salary incentives and decreased hours. An increasingly militant rank and file refused to approve the agreement reached by Lewis and Poli and accepted by Reagan. Although certainly sympathetic to labor, McCartin asserts that PATCO overreached when the union called for an August strike. PATCO had realized many of its demands and a conservative administration had agreed to expand the collective bargaining parameters demanded by the union. When presented with an illegal strike, Reagan, citing the response of Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge to the 1919 Boston Police strike, proclaimed that no public union had the right to strike against the public good, and he gave the strikers forty-eight hours to return to their jobs or face being fired. PATCO leadership assuming that the controllers were essential to the safe operation of the nation’s air travel called the President’s bluff. Reagan then fired over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and banned them from ever taking on other federal government jobs. Support from the larger union movement was modest as the PATCO strike was unpopular with the general public, who resented the chaos the work stoppage imposed on travel plans. While many flights were canceled, the FAA managed to maintain air service for the nation with a skeleton crew of management personnel and military controllers along with the support of the airline industry until a new force of controllers could be hired and properly trained. PATCO maintained that the FAA was risking the safety of passengers. Nevertheless, the strike was broken, and in October 1981 the PATCO union was decertified. Although President Bill Clinton lifted the lifetime ban on federal employment for the striking controllers, few were actually rehired, and they failed to enjoy the increased salaries and benefits of controllers in the 1990s. McCartin concludes, “Their exclusion from the fruits of these victories represented for them one final indignity -- one more punishment inflicted on workers whose disastrous strike had marked the onset of an ominous new era in American labor relations” (358).

McCartin relates the complex labor negotiations between PATCO and the FAA in a straight forward manner which may easily be followed by general readers. Drawing upon the archives of PATCO as well as interviews with union leaders such as John Leyden, Mike Rock, and Jack Maher, McCartin writes from a labor perspective, but he is certainly not uncritical of PATCO in the 1981 strike negotiations. As for the future of labor, it remains to be seen whether the failed PATCO strike was the beginning of the end for American labor, or whether more recent overreaches by conservative politicians and their business allies will revitalize the labor movement so weakened by the PATCO strike. Collision Course is an important piece of labor scholarship which deserves a wide readership.

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