Tuesday, January 31, 2012

History of Public Unions and the 1981 Patco Strike

Public employee unions are a major force today. It wasn't always that way.

President Kennedy in 1962 by Executive Order granted federal employees the right to form unions. They were not given the right to strike or bargain wages and benefits. They still can't.

In 1981 The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or Patco, struck illegally. As a result, then President Reagan fired thousands of air traffic controllers, and non-union replacements were immediately hired and trained. The Patco union's strike was broken.

Describing the historical importance of what happened, a reviewer of the book "Collision Course" in A New President, and a Union's Last Stand has this to say:

" FOR 30 years, Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the federal air traffic controller strike has often been seen as a turning point in United States history, the moment when labor unions began an inexorable decline and when political conservatism came of age.

The columnist George Will celebrated the defeated strike as a sign that years of liberal permissiveness had ended. “In a sense,” he wrote, “the ’60s ended in August 1981.""

Later the book's reviewer says that President Reagan took this strike breaking action reluctantly:

"The book says that the Ronald Reagan of early 1981 was no union buster, that he had been reaching out for union support and that, in Patco’s case, he agreed to grant concessions more plentiful than any ever granted to a public employee union by an American president. It was Patco’s hubris, contends Mr. McCartin, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University, that forced Mr. Reagan’s hand and led to the union’s subsequent implosion.

“Collision Course” charts the rise of Patco and other public-sector unions over the course of 20 years, from the moment that President John F. Kennedy allowed government workers to bargain collectively. This power, however, came with strict limitations; unions like Patco were not allowed to strike or bargain for higher wages. Their negotiations with the government typically revolved around working conditions."

Finally, the reviewer details how Patco lost its way:

"By and large, the new Reagan administration took little notice of Patco. The union had endorsed Mr. Reagan in the 1980 election, after cutting a closed-doors deal in which Reagan advisers, while promising few specifics, made it clear they would look kindly on union demands. But Patco leadership emboldened by the deal, demanded pay raises. In June 1981, Mr. Reagan actually gave in, granting the union what Mr. McCartin shows was possibly the most generous set of concessions made to a federal public employee union in government history.

It wasn’t enough. The rank and file rejected the deal, setting the stage for a strike that, in retrospect, had little to do with salary. This was about respect, about a deep-seated anger at years of perceived humiliation at the hands of F.A.A. supervisors. It was only after the union rejected the government’s offers, Mr. McCartin demonstrates, that Mr. Reagan took his historic hard line. Any controllers who struck, he vowed, would be fired. And they were fired, in the thousands. Supervisors and military controllers filled in, and replacements would be trained and hired. For the most part, the public applauded while unions cringed. The cause of organized labor was set back years, if not decades."

The fundamental question raised by the Patco example is when enough is enough for the union. If the union keeps winning every game played, it tends to keep pushing for more. That's what happened to President Reagan, previously an ally of organized labor, having been a union president himself in earlier days. But when pushed too far, Reagan took firm and resolute action. He stood up for taxpayers and the general public.

And taxpayers and the general public benefited from Reagan's resolve, as did the flying public.

Today many public sector unions have reached a point with states and cities where their negotiating strength is evident. Maybe we're approaching the enough is enough stage again.

If so, is there another Reagan or even several Reagans in the state and city houses? Let's hope so.

I guess the 1981 Patco strike's real message is that enough may not be accepted as enough unless and until someone representing taxpayers has the guts to stand up and set things straight.

Thanks. Bob.

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