Joseph A. McCartin: Remembering the day the strike died, 25 years ago

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Joseph A. McCartin teaches history at Georgetown University in Washington. He is writing a book on the PATCO strike. ]

This week will mark the 25th anniversary of a turning point in American economic history. On Aug. 3, 1981, some 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization walked off their jobs directing the nation's air traffic for the Federal Aviation Administration. Defying laws that prohibited federal workers from striking, PATCO members tried to force the government to negotiate over demands for a shorter work week and higher pay. President Ronald Reagan responded with an ultimatum: If the controllers did not return to work within 48 hours, Reagan promised to fire them. When more than 11,000 strikers decided to test Reagan's resolve, they lost their jobs and their union.

With the PATCO episode, American labor relations entered a new era. In the years after 1981, a number of prominent private sector employers followed Reagan's lead and permanently replaced their own strikers. The stiffened resistance to collective bargaining that became evident in the 1980s accelerated organized labor's decline.

Twenty-five years later, union leaders have yet to reverse that slide. Last summer a raging debate over labor's ongoing crisis finally split unions into two factions. Yet, for all of their differences, both the AFL-CIO and its rival, Change to Win, share a basic consensus. Both groups agree that the declining rate of union membership is labor's fundamental problem, even though their strategies to deal with it diverge. Unfortunately, union leaders may have put their fingers on a symptom rather than the cause of labor's woes. They would be wise to ponder an even more deeply rooted problem facing labor today--one highlighted by this week's painful anniversary. Since 1981, the strike has nearly disappeared from labor's arsenal. Unless unions can recover that weapon, they may not reverse their slumping membership figures.

During labor's heyday, American workers struck frequently and effectively. Between 1950 and 1980, the U.S. witnessed an average of more than 300 major work stoppages (each involving at least 1,000 workers) per year. But between 1982 and 2000 the annual average of stoppages plummeted to 46. Nor has it bottomed out yet. In this century, the average is under 30, less than one-tenth the 1970s rate. The drop in strikes has been much more precipitous than that of union membership and far out of proportion to declines in unionization. Between 1952 and 2002, the share of U.S. workers who paid union dues fell from 35 to 13 percent. But the number of workers who struck in 2002 was a mere one-sixtieth of the 1952 figure.

If the PATCO debacle alone did not kill the American strike, it undeniably marked the dawn of a no-strike era. Since 1981, global competition, economic deregulation, heightened anti-unionism, and more have combined to rip the strike weapon from workers' hands. Strikes are seemingly less common now than hurricanes. The result is that even when they are organized, workers today wield less leverage than they did a generation ago. Undoubtedly, this realization discourages non-union workers from assuming the risks of organizing. And this suggests that unions may not recoup membership losses unless they can also recover the capacity to strike and the leverage that comes with it....
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