PATCO 1981: A Postal Perspective

Over at Firedoglake, there's an interesting post on the 25th anniversary of the 1981 PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike.

When that strike occurred, then-President Ronald Reagan fired all 11,000 air traffic controllers. They were temporarily replaced with military ATCs (I believe some of the striking ATCs who belonged to National Guard units actually got called to duty and ordered to replace themselves), and "permanent replacements" were hired and rushed into expedited training (which sounds a lot better than "crash course", in this context).

This was the first, and most drastic, attack on unions by Reagan's right-wing administration. As the Firedoglake article points out, the number of strikes by organized labor dropped drastically afterwards, and union membership in general has also dropped dramatically. The successful firing of the PATCO members also set the groundwork for rollbacks on benefits (pay, pensions, hours, insurance, virtually every benefit labor had gained in previous years has come under strong attack since PATCO).

The firing was also a high-risk gamble by Reagan's administration; they were gambling that they'd be able to get replacement workers trained and in place without having an air disaster take place in the interim. They won that gamble. But boy, I (and a lot of other members of the public) was aghast when the PATCO members were fired and suddenly air traffic was in the hands of (considerably fewer) military ATCs, and then in the hands of quickly trained replacements; I could scarcely believe that Reagan and company could place so many innocent travellers at such high risk.

Thinking back on it now, I believe that Reagan and his chorts saw the action against PATCO as, literally, an act of war. The PATCO firing was their own, earlier, version of the "Shock & Awe" attacks on Baghdad at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And if there had been an airliner crash, if there had been hundreds of people killed because of an error by the replacement ATCs... I think the Reagan administration, while publically regretting the loss, would have simply considered hundreds of dead Americans as "collateral damage" in their war to "protect American business interests".

As it happened, the year 1981 was also the year in which the NALC's (National Association of Letter Carriers) contract with the Postal Service had, several months before the PATCO strike, come up for renegotiation.

It was a very tense period for letter carriers. The talks between the NALC and management were light in conversation and compromise, heavy in confrontation. And the general consensus among letter carriers seemed to be that a strike would have to take place before management would bend. The day before the current contract expired, the word being passed around amongst employees was that a call to strike would almost certainly be issued by the NALC the next morning.

I was highly anxious about the prospect of a strike. I wasn't a union member back then. And I didn't believe that a strike was, quite, necessary yet. I thought that the union and management should issue a temporary -- for a month, or a week, or even just a few days -- extension on the current contract, and keep talking. Keep talking, until an absolute stonewall impasse had been reached. Then, and only then, could I see a strike being justified.

And if I thought that a strikecall was not justified... then I couldn't see myself making any other choice than to cross the picket line if that strike were called.

When I mentioned this to a couple of the other employees, they were aghast. I was warned that my car's tires would be slashed, that my wife and son would receive obscene phone calls, that if I was ever in the wrong place alone I might be badly beaten.

(None of this was told to me as if the teller would be the person doing all these things. A sort of amorphous "They" would be the people doing all these horrible things. But this sort of intimidation, and other reports of corruption and violence in unions that I'd seen in the news for years, was one of the major reasons I hadn't felt comfortable joining the union.)(And didn't, until more than ten years later, in large part because of those intimidating remarks made to me in 1981. And when I finally did join the union, it wasn't so much that the union had cleaned up its act, but that management had grown so much worse in the intervening years.)

So I didn't sleep very well that night. But woke up to the clock-radio announcing the news that a tentative agreement on a new postal contract had been reached at the last minute (literally, at sunrise) after all-night talks, and that there would be no strike. *whew*

But if a strike by letter carriers had occurred that year... I think it would have been the NALC, rather than PATCO, that would have been made an example of, with thousands of letter carriers, rather than air traffic controllers, being fired and replaced. I think Reagan was looking for a union to destroy, and it was just luck that letter carriers dodged that bullet, with PATCO taking it instead, a few months later.

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