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An old lesson still holds for unions

THIS SUMMER marks the 25th anniversary of a strike whose outcome still haunts organized labor -- and affects the job conditions of millions of nonunion workers as well.

On Aug. 3, 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization launched a nationwide walkout after years of conflict with the Federal Aviation Administration. President Ronald Reagan, a onetime Hollywood union leader, gave the strikers 48 hours to return to work. When 11,345 ignored his ultimatum, he fired them all. Meanwhile, the FAA kept air traffic flowing, at greatly reduced volume, with the help of supervisors, nonstrikers, and military controllers.

Reagan's mass dismissal of PATCO members -- and their black-listing from further federal employment -- was the biggest, most dramatic act of union-busting in 20th-century America. PATCO's destruction ushered in a decade of lost strikes and lockouts, triggered by management demands for pay and benefit givebacks that continue to this day in a wide range of industries.

Whenever longtime union members gather now to bemoan the weakened state of labor, PATCO is invariably mentioned. If only we had all stuck together, they say, and displayed the kind of strike solidarity necessary to meet Reagan's challenge, the history of the last 25 years might have been different for labor.

In the summer of 1981, neither the AFL-CIO nor airline industry unions acted so decisively. As PATCO strike historian and Drexel University professor Art Shostak recalls, ``The labor movement fussed and fumed, finally to stand exposed as a paper tiger." PATCO's most significant aid came from abroad in the form of a brief job action by Canadian air traffic controllers who risked fines and suspensions for refusing to handle flights bound for or originating in the United States.

The PATCO strikers were unlikely candidates for labor militancy and martyrdom. The majority, as Shostak points out, were Vietnam-era veterans who went directly from the military into the FAA's rigid, hierarchical culture of ``white shirts, ties, and close-cropped hair." Much to the annoyance of other unions, PATCO had endorsed Reagan for president in 1980.

More significantly, PATCO failed to build ties with the pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, and baggage handlers whose backing was so desperately needed during the controllers' walk-out.

Nevertheless, as the fines, injunctions, and federal indictments piled up against strike leaders in Boston and elsewhere, PATCO's struggle became a ``consciousness-raising experience" for its members and other trade unionists. There was a tremendous outpouring of grass-roots labor support for the air traffic controllers, even as they were being widely vilified in the media as making greedy and irrational demands.

Viewed from the perspective of the last quarter-century -- with its real wage stagnation, longer working hours, and shrinking pensions -- the strikers' proposals may indeed seem unrealistic, although they shouldn't be. In response to stressful working conditions that affected FAA employees' health and longevity on the job, PATCO sought a shorter workweek (equal to the reduced hours of controllers in other countries) and better earlier retirement benefits.

Compare such strike issues and the aspirations they represented with the causes of a nationwide work stoppage at Northwest Airlines last year.

Nearly 4,400 members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association lost their jobs resisting a 26 percent wage cut, elimination of traditional pension coverage, and contracting out of more than half their work. All of the AMFA strikers were immediately replaced, PATCO-style, while top labor officials once again stood by, carping about the bad timing or past misbehavior of the union involved.

The lesson of PATCO -- and, more recently, AMFA as well -- is as old as unions themselves: An injury to one is an injury to all. No labor movement can long survive, much less thrive, without a strong culture of mutual aid and protection.

When labor organizations practice solidarity some of the time, rather than all of the time, they do a grave disservice to their own members -- and the millions of unorganized workers whose pay and benefits have also suffered since Reagan's death blow to PATCO.

Steve Early, a labor organizer, works for the Communications Workers of America.

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