10 Years After PATCO Strike, A Legacy of Labor Bitterness

August 04, 1991|By MICHAEL K. BURNS

A decade after President Ronald Reagan fired 11,400 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and abolished their union, a new generation of controllers is on board, represented by a new union and voicing the same kind of complaints about under-staffing, overwork, antiquated equipment and sagging morale.

But members of the new National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) will not strike over these issues, insists union president R. Steve Bell, who credits the Federal Aviation Administration with taking some steps to improve control of the increasingly crowded skies and to listen to employee grievances. "We're committed to working in a nonconfrontational manner," he says, echoing similar sentiments of FAA officials.

The lesson of 1981, which saw two-thirds of the experienced controllers fired and a severely crippled air traffic system, apparently has been learned by both sides.

When PATCO controllers walked out on Aug. 3. 1981, Mr. Reagan's swift, tough response was seen as a turning point in U.S. labor relations. Employers viewed the decision as a green light from the White House to fire strikers and replace them, unions claim. Over the next 10 years, replacements of striking workers became more common, as the number of major strikes dropped.

PATCO's demise was also seen as a cautionary symbol of the decline of organized labor in the United States. Membership in labor unions dropped from 22.3 million in 1980 to 16.7 million last year, by government estimate. Meantime, union share of the labor force shrunk from 23 percent to 16.1 percent as the total work force expanded.

But the downward trend of union strength had begun years earlier. More women and minorities, often ignored by traditional union organizers, entered the labor force. The shift to a service economy, where organizing was less common, from manufacturing, long a union stronghold, eroded organized labor's membership base. Labor's strong ties to the Democratic Party, while Republicans sat in the White House, weakened its political clout.

Economic conditions of the 1980s played a role in more combative, brutal labor relations. Companies slashed jobs and costs to fight the runaway inflation of the previous decade and to manage the heavy debt incurred through leveraged buyouts. Accelerated mergers and breakups of existing companies hampered union organizing.

Court decisions and rulings by the National Labor Relations Board that began in the 1970s also undercut union power. Striker rights were curtailed, some workers were excluded from labor law protection, and union organizers were kept off company property.

Government deregulation of business fostered a new look by employers at the labor contract. So did the palpable anti-union, pro-business ethic espoused by Mr. Reagan, the only labor union president ever elected to the White House.

But the mass firing of striking air traffic controllers would be repeatedly cited as the presidential deed that challenged the legitimacy of unions. Labor and, tacitly, employers seemed to agree that the action emboldened companies faced with a strike to take that step, which had been little used since the Supreme Court permitted them to do so a half-century earlier.

Lost in this perspective was a key distinction in the PATCO walkout. That strike by federal employees was prohibited by law -- unlike most strikes in the private sector. And Mr. Reagan's dismissal of the illegal federal strikers was not without precedent.

PATCO's action was also not one to arouse public sympathy, despite some legitimate grievances about overwork and stress and nonresponsive management. These relatively highly paid government employees were demanding $10,000 pay raises, a 32-hour week and a retirement rights with less than 20 years of work -- not realistic goals for most working folk. The labor dispute disrupted vacation travel plans of many Americans that summer. Many PATCO members conceded that their union had overreacted -- after it was too late to save their jobs.

The consequences of the strike persist. Even today, with a continuing shortage of fully trained air traffic controllers, President Bush refuses to rehire those PATCO strikers. Legislation to lift the administration ban on their employment has not succeeded. Most strikers never regained the salary level they earned as controllers; many were unemployed and in near-poverty several years later, according to a congressional survey.

Yet it is doubtful that many could return to the job today, even if the government relented. The FAA says their skills are too rusty and that the system has changed. Older ex-controllers themselves question whether they could take the job pressure again.

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