A Review of Joseph McCartin’s Book on the PATCO Strike

Joseph A. McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)

To veterans of the labor movement, the words “PATCO strike” require no further explanation: They conjure up unpleasant memories of one of the worst disasters to befall organized labor in the late 20th century. Tackling a powerful employer—the U.S. government—a recently formed union of air traffic controllers engaged in an illegal strike in 1981 to compel the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address its longstanding grievances. Approximately 12,000 controllers struck, temporarily tying up travel across the nation’s skies. Convinced that the air traffic system could not operate without their highly skilled labor, the strikers gambled that President Ronald Reagan’s administration would quickly back down. They were wrong. Reagan held firm. Strikers were fired and barred from ever again working in their profession. PATCO was destroyed.

Reagan’s anti-labor move signaled to private-sector employers that strikes could be effectively fought and the tables turned on their unions. For organized labor, it was downhill from there. The “memory of PATCO’s destruction long haunted American workers,” argues historian Joseph McCartin. In subsequent years, “PATCO’s ghost still had the capacity to instill fear” among trade unionists.

McCartin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, revisits the strike, as well as its origins and consequences, in his important and highly readable book, “Collision Course.” He skillfully reconstructs the world of air traffic controllers from the 1960s through the 1980s, capturing the emotional and physical tensions of their work, their on-the-job frustrations, their aspirations and strategies, and political efforts to improve their working conditions and the safety of America’s skies. Equally important, he pieces together a fascinating picture of the federal government’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering that significantly complicates the all-too-popular image of a principled President Reagan standing firm against a union holding air traffic hostage to its unreasonable demands.

The significance of the PATCO strike lies not simply in the union’s loss but in its consequences for the labor movement and the nation as a whole. It “acted as a powerful catalyst that magnified the effects of the multiple problems that beset American unions.” American employers increasingly resorted to strikebreaking and permanent replacements in their conflicts with their union members; the number of strikes fell precipitously in the years to come. One of the strike’s “underappreciated political consequences” was the “rise of avowedly antiunion conservatives” among Republican Party ranks, as support for Reagan’s hard line became a “litmus test of Republican loyalty.”

That legacy is glaringly on display in the war on public sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, where anti-union Republicans invoke Reagan’s steely resolve in defeating PATCO. In so doing, they engage in mythmaking by concealing an important truth. As McCartin shows, Reagan had “not set out to ‘drop a bomb’ on PATCO”; he accepted the legitimacy of public sector unions and initially engaged in extensive (and, McCartin notes, unprecedented) bargaining with the air traffic controllers. Only his hard line against what was universally acknowledged as an illegal strike is recalled, not his willingness to bargain. 

Effectively bridging the gap between academic history and general readers, “Collision Course” is a clearheaded and often moving account of a decisive event in American labor history whose complex origins and legacies remain relevant today.

By Eric Arnesen, who teaches labor history at The George Washington University and serves as a member of the Teamsters Labor Research Center’s advisory board.