In order to understand the debate over collective bargaining in Wisconsin last year, it is helpful to consider the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO, a labor union that represented U.S. air traffic controllers from 1968 until 1981.
With the rise of aviation as a profession after World War II, highly specialized work of managing air traffic evolved using radar and communications technology originating in the military. In developing a process to manage U.S. aerospace, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hired mostly white, ex-military men to manage aircraft traffic in U.S. skies. Because of federal law, air traffic controllers were restricted from collective bargaining on compensation, and specifically prohibited, as government employees, from using strikes as a labor negotiating tactic. They partnered with attorney F. Lee Bailey to organize PATCO and used sick outs and work slowdowns, to negotiate those terms they could with the government.
On the verge of a breakthrough in 1981, PATCO was in negotiations with the administration over compensation. Ronald Reagan had secured PATCO’s endorsement during the 1980 election campaign, and was willing to consider collective bargaining on compensation, even though it was legally restricted. PATCO members and leadership misunderstood how far the administration was willing to go in the negotiations, called a strike and President Reagan fired all of the striking air traffic controllers without hesitation for an illegal strike. The union was decertified in 1981.
So what’s the connection to Wisconsin and Governor Scott Walker?
In his book Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers and the Strike that Changed America, author Joseph A. McCartin quoted Governor Walker on Monday, Feb. 7, 2011, the night before he introduced a bill to decimate public sector bargaining rights in the Wisconsin legislature.
“You know this may seem melodramatic,” Walker said. “But thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan…had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just of his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers.” According to McCartin, Walker held up a photo of Reagan, said it was time to follow Reagan’s example, saying “I’m not negotiating. This is our moment. This is our time to change history.”
Here is where Governor Walker has it wrong.
Walker seeks to strip collective bargaining rights to balance his budget. When Reagan fired the striking PATCO members, he did so at great cost. Attorney fees for the government were more than a third of a million dollars, but the real cost was more than a billion dollars to retrain workers, a billion dollars per month in lost revenues for the airlines in the aftermath of the firing and the untold cost of compromising public safety, in the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 on Jan. 13, 1982, killing 78 people. When Walker claims his action was to balance the budget, he is repeating a Republican talking point that rose from Reagan’s action and not dealing with the reality of the value of public sector employees, and the true cost of replacing them. (See note 1).
We live in a time when if we hear an idea we like, we rush to believe in its efficacy. More simply, if the corporate media is reporting something, there must be something to it. If one thing came out of the PATCO strike, it was the idea that any employee, even one with highly specialized knowledge, can be replaced. What is not mentioned, or considered often enough by politicians, is that there is a high cost to hire replacement workers, one not measured in budget line items for salary and benefits. Failure to look at the big picture is a primary grievance many of us who live in the real world have with our government.
Note 1: For a detailed explanation of the investigation of the contributing factors to the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, See McCartin, Collision Course, page 326. McCartin explains that the air traffic controller level of experience was a contributing cause of the accident.