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‘First They Came for the Trade Unionists’¹: Unions, Reagan and the Lasting Impact of the PATCO Strike

in Current Issue/Views

by Erik Szabó

The role, purpose, and legitimacy of trade and labor unions have been the subject of seemingly never-ending debates and it is also undebatable that this status has undergone many changes throughout the history of organized labor.  The topic of present essay is the situation of trade and labor unions in the United States. The endeavor of current paper is twofold: its first undertaking is to examine the relationship between the unions and the Reagan administration, while its second intention is to draw and show potential parallels with the Reaganian notions and the present-day situation of organized labor. This will be accomplished by first exploring the historical significance of the unions, then scrutinizing the affiliation of the labor movement and the Reagan administration, while the last part of the paper will show possibilities about how the Reagan administration influenced the situation of present-day organized labor.

Low wages, abominable living conditions, lack of safety standards and social networks were characterizing epitomes of this period.

Even though it is not the main purpose of the present paper to give a comprehensive insight into the history of organized labor, there are historical developments that ought to be mentioned to make a somewhat complete understanding of the thesis of this paper possible. Even though it could be argued that something similar to trade unions existed in the Middle Ages in the form of guilds already, there is an abundance of distinctions between the two associations. The modern form of unionization which we are accustomed to dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries (Pelz 83), writes William Pelz in his book chapter called The Rise of the Working Classes: Trade Unions and Socialism, 1871–1914. Needless to say, the first ideas that were concerned about the organization of labor were the products of a social and economic environment, which made any kind of improvement for the lower classes almost unattainable. As Eric Hopkins writes in his article Working Hours and Conditions during the Industrial Revolution: A Re-Appraisal “it appears, then, that whether a worker was employed in a textile factory (the most extreme case) or in a small workshop, he suffered a marked deterioration in his life and at work – the obvious consequence of the quickening pace of industrialization” (Hopkins 52). Low wages, abominable living conditions, lack of safety standards and social networks were characterizing epitomes of this period.

The main objectives of unions are to represent the interest of wage-earners with collective actions, hence unions serve as a protective banner against victimization by employers.

This is the atmosphere in which organized labor is born. Even though a comprehensive study of the abundant history of strikes and work stoppages is outside of the boundaries of the present paper, there are two concepts that need to be addressed. One of them is the importance of public support, as many walkouts were able to achieve success and avoid prosecution because of the unrelenting support of the people from outside. The other concept is the significance of the lack of legal footing for unions. The extended history of walkouts shows that in almost all cases workers were pestered and blacklisted as (sometimes socialist) agitators and were declined the right to return to their occupation. In other words, there was not an existing network of checks and balances implemented in the mechanisms of strikes and unions. Pelz further maintains: Governments (…) actively helped the bourgeoisie accumulate capital and hence control its workforce. As a result, workers’ rights were severely restricted for much of the nineteenth century with unions outlawed or, at a minimum, prohibited from striking (Pelz 83).

Even though the leverage of collective bargaining and the possibility of disrupting production by withdrawal from labor were well-known and frequently utilized concepts, workers going on strike were not protected by law, therefore employers were not obliged to take their demands into serious consideration – they posessed the legal right to just replace the workers by an even cheaper workforce. This legal acclamation in Britain came in 1871 (Klarman 1487), while in the USA some 60 years later, in 1935. According to Lois Macdonald in his article, The National Labour Relations Act, the main purpose of the 1935 Act was to obligate employers to acknowledge the right to strike and bargain collectively (MacDonald 413). This helped trade unions in capacitating their agenda on legal grounds, and henceforth to amass a more effective bargaining power in the struggle for economic balance. To sum up, a trade union is an organization that collectivizes wage earners in an employer-employee dichotomy. The main objectives of unions are to represent the interest of wage-earners with collective actions, henceforth they serve as a protective banner against victimization and exploitation by employers.  The first events which bear significant importance from the perspective of this paper occur in the 1970s. The period is important for two reasons: first, this is the year that Reagan took office as the Governor of California (Coste 655-656), and secondly, this is the decade in which Reagan had to face his first major conflict as a politician, the Delano Grape Strike. The premise of the Delano Grape Strike was that Mexican and Filipino laborers went on strike with the intention of demanding the improvement of their living and working conditions.  (Jacobs 23). The strike managed to accumulate support from the public. Furthermore, the Delano Grape Strike also becomes symbolic of the future relationship between the Reagan Administration and unions. As Todd Holmes argues in his article The Economic Roots of Reaganism: Corporate Conservatives, Political Economy, and the United Farm Workers Movement, 1965–1970 “two weeks after the UFW announced the strike and boycott of Giumarra, the political economy that would develop during Reagan’s tenure began to take shape, as his administration actively sought to undercut the union’s efforts” (Holmes 67).  During the five years of the Grape Strike, Reagan was constantly supporting the interests of the employers, for instance by providing an even cheaper workforce for the growers of grapes. Holmes further writes that “to supplement the inmates, guest workers, and illegal immigrants that made up the labor force of many growers like Giumarra, Reagan also authorized the use of 2,618 welfare recipients for agricultural work” (68).

An Example of Strikers Receiving Support from The Public During the Delano Grape Strike, 1965 (Courtesy of

Even though during the Grape Strike Reagan was not a government official residing in Washington, the politician’s first conflict with organized labor to a certain degree became emblematic of the relationship between unions and his administration and gave an epitome of the economic trajectory of the Reagan Revolution (55-56).  Even though the reign of the Reagan administration is filled with economic debates about the role of the state and the extent of acceptable interventionism, there is one historical event which transformed the trajectory of unionization and altered the social standing and importance of organized labor, and that event is the 1981 strike of Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (further PATCO). In short, the premise of the PATCO strike was that workers of the American air trafficking sector were demanding better working conditions, higher wages, and shorter working weeks as many of the air traffic controllers were showing symptoms of excessive stress and work-caused burnouts (Morgan 166-167). The strike began on August 3 in 1981 and “four out of five of nations air-traffic controllers (ATC) went on a disastrous strike against the Federal Aviation Association” (Shostak 75) – writers Art Shostak in his article An Unhappy 25th Anniversary: The Patco Strike in Retrospect. The number of air-traffic controllers who went on strike was well over 11,000, which meant that North American air travel would be completely impeded for the duration of the strike. 

Supporters of the PATCO strike, 1981 (Courtesy of Georgia State University)

However, the situation of the PATCO strike is complicated by a certain factor; the legal status of labor strikes was (and to some extent is) in a turmoil of legitimacy. Even though the 1938 Labor Relations act gave the right to workers to organize strikes, that legislation has been overwritten in theory and in practice as well. For example, in the case of the 1938 Mackay strike the Supreme Court concluded the case by ruling that it was illegal for federal employees to organize strikes and the Taft-Hartley Act issued in 1947 further reinforced this trajectory (McCartin 18). This was the challenge that accomplices of the PATCO stoppage were facing. This is underpinned by Morgan: “controllers, who were civilians and part of the ‘air traffic team’, were federal employees who could not strike legally and were hemmed in by a quasi-military hierarchy” (Morgan 167). It is observable that the nature of the PATCO strike was already on ambiguous grounds from the legal perspective as the chapters of American legal history showed that despite the legislation employers were given the freedom to permanently replace the employers of the public sector (McCartin 18). Naturally, this significantly weakens the power of the unions’ most powerful weapon, which is strikes, because the workers become easily replaceable by an unskilled, and for that reason cheaper workforce.

Employers were given the freedom to permanently replace the employers of the public sector.

This is the ambiguity that Reagan relied on when he shut down the strike by replacing all the 11,000 workers who took industrial action in 1981. He denounced the strike as a threat to national and public interest (19) and posed his strikebreaking as an act that was protecting the interests of the American people. Of course, it is easy to grasp why Reagan decided the take the drastic step of firing 11,000 workers: first of all, “he opposed on principle labor’s resort to strike” (Shostak 76), while at the same time Reagan wanted to send a message to the workers of how the public sector regards walkouts (78). Given the fiscal and political policies of the era, this is not farfetched at all; the militancy of organized labor always posed a challenge for America’s individualists economic milieu, and breaking that militancy was definitely a part of Reagan’s economic policies. However, it would be an over-simplification to declare that Reagan was able to break the strike and utilize the leeway of permanent replacement (and by that make PATCO the first union to be destroyed by official Government legislation) out of mere personal detest which he felt towards organized labor. It needs to be said that Reagan was a politician of his time, and despite the fact that he acted along the lines of his political agenda, it also needs to be addressed that to a great extent he was capitalizing on the mistakes which were made by the strikers of PATCO.
First of all, one of the reasons which led to the unsavory upshot of the PATCO strike was that the union leadership was not able to conduct an analysis of their (reasonably powerful) opponents, they rather trusted a trivial scrutiny of their adversaries – Reagan and the notoriously anti-labor director of FAA Lynn Helms (76) – and plunged into assumptions which turned out be far from the truth. For instance, an in-depth analysis of such kind could have shown that Reagan, contrary to the belief of the PATCO leadership was in fact not in favor of unionization and he “was an archconservative, [who] believed all public sector employees should be compelled to take a no-strike oat” (77). It was the first big mistake of the PATCO management (mostly represented by Robert Poli) to assume, based on a few letters and arbitrary meetings with Reagan, that the president was in fact supportive of their cause. Furthermore, such analysis could have shown, that contrary to the certainty of Poli, the FAA was prepared to react to the PATCO strike. Shostak argues in the following manner: 

The PATCO leadership kept telling itself the FAA would give up almost immediately after losing the indispensable services of its controllers. Poli assured members that the nations’ commerce system could not tolerate a total halt in air traffic (passengers and cargo): pained businesses would scream for relief, and Congress (or President Reagan) would order the FAA to capitulate and meekly agree to PATCO’s contract term (77). 

On the contrary, FAA leadership was well-prepared to handle such a strike as this, and they were able to follow and carry out a plan which was already prepared in the 1970s. The last factor which would have made an adversary analysis significant was Reagan’s publicity. “He had just recovered from an assassination attempt and had just appointed Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female Supreme Court justice” (77), writes Shostak. Additionally, strikes had the ability to increase inflation, and battling against it was one of the crucial points of Reagan’s agenda, so he welcomed the opportunity to keep inflation in check by breaking strikes organized by unions. 1:0 for Reagan.
The next major factor which led to the downfall of PATCO’s efforts was the lack of public support. Yet again, PATCO was relying on their sheer ability of stopping North American air traffic and paid little or no attention to making themselves heard in the public arena. In fact, Poli had admitted that they had given subpar attention to their public image and compared the success of their public efforts to the ones of Qaddafi (78). This was vital, as on the other side was the FAA and the Reagan administration who had one of the biggest media empires at their disposal. The FAA and Reagan utilized everything that was part of their agenda to create a bad public image of PATCO: they managed to frame them as unconstitutional, irresponsible and greedy lawbreakers (quoting the no strike-oath of federal employees) whose striking was based solely on financial demands. Furthermore, Reagan and the FAA also managed to create and commend a narrative in which the strike was posed as a reason for increasing inflation which was to hurt every American but mostly those of the lower classes – which demographic was very supportive of Reagan. (78). Even though PATCO tried to retaliate after this framing, the momentum was already lost: a public narrative about the strikers was created, in which they were unlawful vagabonds trying to capitalize on other Americans for their own financial gain. 2:0 for Reagan. 

PATCO Strikers Demanding Higher Wages, 1981 (Courtesy of

The final fatal flaw of the PATCO strikers was the lack of something that Shostak identifies as a “Plan B – the ability to compromise in order to live to fight for another day” (80). Even though PATCO started the strike from a confusingly unfavourable position, the strikers were enraptured by their certainty that they should win the strike by the sheer power of work stoppage. However, due to the above-listed factors, the trajectory of the strike rapidly deteriorated and it swiftly became clear that PATCO is on the losing side. However, they had one last chance, to agree to the FAA’s terms and save their employment. Yet, this did not happen despite the fact that there were multiple chances to accomplish that. “The lesson here is to know when to play and when instead to fold one’s cards” (81) – writes Shostak. 3:0 for Reagan. These are the main reasons because of which the PATCO strike was an excellent opportunity for Reagan to exemplify his and his administration’s affiliation towards organized labor. Even though he was capitalizing on the mistakes of the strikers, the PATCO strike was remembered in American labor history as the biggest fiasco of unions, since over 11,000 workers were permanently replaced (within a 3-day period), which is an unheard-of amount in the history of strikes. This begs the question: did it have a lasting impact on the USA’s organized labor movements?
It is almost undeniable that the downfall of the PATCO strike had its effects of union affiliation in the US. “By reinforcing the legitimacy of striker replacement in the public sector, Reagan eased the way for its use in the private sector” (McCartin 19) – writes McCartin. It can be said that the failure of the PATCO strike is symbolic because it resulted in unions losing their powerful strike weapon, as it showed employers that they can operate within legal boundaries by utilizing permanent replacement. Of course, that means that even if workers decide to organize, they have less power in their hands (19), because their demands no longer have to be met. Furthermore, after looking at labor union statistics (NPR’s ‘past 50 years map’ (1) and Statista’s table (2)) it can be seen that the PATCO strike reinforced the trend of union shrinking, given that since the Reagan administration union membership was (and is) in steady decline. As Jacobs and Myers write, “neoliberal presidential administrations from both parties after the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan helped produce substantial decreases in union influence both in national politics and within firms” (Jacobs and Myers 753). Notwithstanding the fact that the PATCO strike cannot be appointed as the only factor for this decline (it is rather a combination of worker-individualism and management opposition), it is undeniable that the symbolic loss of the strike weapon and “Reagan’s vivid statement” (755) undermined the perceived legitimacy of trade unions. 

Modern Strikers, 2018 (Courtesy of Personnel Today)

Furthermore, there is one last factor that needs to be examined: the difference between union wages and non-union wages. It is undeniable, that unions are still able to bargain for higher wages despite the fact that their membership is constantly shrinking (Belman and Voos 67). This means, that unions have not lost all their legitimacy in the public sphere, because they still have the ability to enforce fairer compensation for their workers. “Falling unionization is accompanied by rising wage inequality” (Western and Rosenfeld 514) – reinforce the idea Western and Rosenfeld. According to this, while the wages of non-union workers were stagnating (or even declining), workers who were members of unions were able to negotiate for competitive and reasonable wages. If we accept this as a fact, it can be seen that in the following years (as inflation increases) the role of the unions might be more important than ever: they might be the ultimate dividing line between workers’ fair representation and their exploitation. 

The PATCO strike was an excellent opportunity for Reagan to exemplify his and his administration’s affiliation towards organized labor.

The situation of organized labor remains somewhat endangered in the US. As it was said in the beginning, unions have gone a long way from their beginnings, during which they faced legal repercussions and sometimes even public backlash. However, events like the PATCO strike show that this journey is never really completed – it rather exemplifies that unions will have to fight their legal and economic battles over and over again. However, during the 21st century in which exploitation can easily be found throughout the world, the role of organization among workers and employees might be more important than ever. The case of PATCO remains a watershed event in the history of that organization, that heavily influenced the perception of the labor movement in later decades. 

Works Cited

Belman, Dale, and Paula B. Voos. “Union Wages and Union Decline: Evidence from the Construction Industry.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, vol. 60, no. 1, 2006, pp. 67–87. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec. 2022.

COSTE, FRANÇOISE. “WRITING THE LIFE OF RONALD REAGAN: AN IMPOSSIBLE MISSION?” Biography, vol. 41, no. 3, 2018, pp. 654–69. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec. 2022.

Hopkins, Eric. “Working Hours and Conditions during the Industrial Revolution: A Re Appraisal.” The Economic History Review, vol. 35, no. 1, 1982, pp. 52–66. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Oct. 2022.

Jacobs, Andrew. “Friends and Foes: Religious Publications and the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott (1965-1970).” American Catholic Studies, vol. 124, no. 1, 2013, pp. 23–42. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec. 2022.

Klarman, Michael J. “The Judges versus the Unions: The Development of British Labor Law, 1867-1913.” Virginia Law Review, vol. 75, no. 8, 1989, pp. 1487–602. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec. 2022.

MacDonald, Lois. “The National Labor Relations Act.” The American Economic Review, vol. 26, no. 3, 1936, pp. 412–27. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec.2022.

McCARTIN, JOSEPH A. “PATCO, Permanent Replacement, and the Loss of Labor’s Strike Weapon.” Perspectives on Work, vol. 10, no. 1, 2006, pp. 17–19. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec. 2022

Morgan, David. “Terminal Flight: The Air Traffic Controllers’ Strike of 1981.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1984, pp. 165–83. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec. 2022.

Pelz, William A. “The Rise of the Working Classes: Trade Unions and Socialism, 1871 1914.” A People’s History of Modern Europe, Pluto Press, 2016, pp. 83–102. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Oct. 2022.

Shostak, Art. “An Unhappy 25th Anniversary: The Patco Strike in Retrospective.” New Labor Forum, vol. 15, no. 3, 2006, pp. 74–82. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec. 2022.

Todd Holmes. “The Economic Roots of Reaganism: Corporate Conservatives, Political Economy, and the United Farm Workers Movement, 1965–1970.” Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 1, 2010, pp. 55–80. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Oct. 2022.

Western, Bruce, and Jake Rosenfeld. “Unions, Norms, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality.” American Sociological Review, vol. 76, no. 4, 2011, pp. 513–37. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec. 2022.


1: The title references the poem First They Camewritten by Martin Niemöller. 

Footnote (1): Even though the 1947 Act was proposed with the intention of helping of the laborers, the manner in which it was written left a big margin for ambiguity, which often resulted in misinterpretations and misuse by the employers, because they could frame certain kinds of organization as ‘unfair labor practice’.

Author’s Profile: Erik Szabó is a third-year student in the Department of English and American Studies of Masaryk University in Brno. His academic interests encompass a multitude of things, for instance he enjoys reading and analyzing modernist literature while he is also interested in linguistics, and as the article shows in historical-political topics as well. When he is not engaged in school- and academia-related work, he enjoys spending time in nature, going on trough-hikes and hitchhiking with his friends. 

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