Jim Morin was a former Air Force air traffic controller when he joined the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1977 and was assigned to one of the busiest airports in the nation, New York’s LaGuardia, where he became secretary-treasurer of the PATCO local.
But even as air traffic was growing and the air traffic control system was working at near capacity, the FAA was cutting staffing numbers and forcing controllers to work longer hours, especially in the spring and summer when thunderstorms would back planes up across the country.
We’d get hammered. So many planes and so few places to put them. It just wore you down, especially if you worked swing shift [3-11 p.m.]. The fatigue factor was huge and a lot of suggestions we made just fell on deaf ears.
In 1981, Morin says controllers knew they were risking their jobs when 12,000 went on strike after negotiations broke down. But they stuck together in solidarity. President Ronald Reagan followed through on his threat and fired the controllers and busted PATCO. That’s still reverberating today, says Morin.
The major ramification for organized labor today is that employers are no longer hesitant to go ahead and hire or threaten to hire replacement workers and workers and unions are very hesitant to use it [strike] now. As far as conservatives are concerned, they point to the strike and the firings as a shining moment in labor history.
Morin was part of a forum at the AFL-CIO today Washington. D.C., where Georgetown University associate history professor Joseph McCartin, author of the definitive book on the PATCO strike, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America, explored the strike’s impact on the labor movement and its connection to the erosion of collective bargaining as a path for workers to get to and stay in the middle class.
“Never before,” says McCartin,
had the nation faced union busting on this scale…private-sector employers applauded his action and followed his example. It broke the moral barriers and constraints against replacing workers who strike. It made union-busting not only respectable, but kind of a litmus test for politicians.
Earlier this year, McCartin said, just before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was set to introduce his bill to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of public employees, Walker told a meeting of his advisors:
This is the last time we meet before we drop the bomb…Now it’s time to follow Reagan’s example.
New Jersey’s right-wing Gov. Chris Christie (R), says McCartin, calls Reagan’s firing of the controllers and busting of PATCO Reagan’s “most inspiring moment.”
Over the years, as more and more employers fired striking workers, the “power of collective action, the right to strike was undermined,” McCartin said.
By 2010, there were only 11 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers, compared with 222 such strikes in 1960—a 95 percent drop in walkouts. As the ability to successfully strike decreased, so did workers’ strength at the workplace and their numbers in unions.
That, he says, is a major factor in the growth of income inequality. “We used to look at collective bargaining as the bulwark of the middle class,” said McCartin. The inability to use collective bargaining’s most powerful tool—the strike— is a major factor in the growth of income inequality, he said.
Following the strike, Morin earned a law degree, served as Air Traffic Controllers (NATCA) general counsel and now worker at the FAA. Also on the panel today were former PATCO controller Elliot Simons and Kenneth Moffett, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service at the time of the PATCO strike.