BOOK REVIEW AND STRIKEWATCH: It's time for a long critical look at the ruling class's PATCO Parable... New book brings the PATCO struggle of 1981 back into a reality check
Considering how many of Chicago's current teachers weren't even born in August 1981, when the President of the United States busted the air traffic controllers' union (PATCO, for Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization), the PATCO tale is one of those scary stories the ruling class wants us to tell and retell — and continue to believe. It's like those summer camp stories that the Big Kids told every night around the campfire. They were always stories of terrible creatures lurking in the dark woods just outside the circle of light where the little kids were protected by the Big Kids. Some of the scary were ghosts and other supernatural creatures, while others were nasty child-devouring animals. The key to such stories is not the truth, but belief. In the case of the The PATCO Parable, the truth for the working class is much much more complex than the lies of the ruling class, and Chicago is where those two clashed for a decade.
But the 1980s were the decade when the massive propaganda work financed by some of the world's wealthiest people came first to fruition, and where many of the founding myths of neoliberal nonsense, union busting, and the privatization attacks on public schools were first field tested and given a form of eternal life (thanks to the growing control of the "one percent" over the media that tells the stories that are fed to the "ninety-nine percent").
These myths were varied. Some were launched and first field tested in Chicago. They included the "Marva Collins story" and the "Stand and Deliver" nonsense (a minority group member superteacher — principal, or edrepreneur — is all it takes to overcome terrifying children's poverty, apartheid level segregation, and capitalist oppression) and "Chicago's Schools — Worst in America" (the libel published as fact by the Chicago Tribune that is still cited as fact by many who write a quarter century later about the urgent need for corporate schools reform NOW).
Some of the other myths were first launched elsewhere and then viciously imposed on Chicago as part of the neo-liberal "school reform," "housing reform," and "welfare reform" policies. Among those were "A Nation At Risk" (to launch corporate "education reform") and the "Welfare Queen" and her Cadillac (the Big Lie launched by Ronald Reagan to undermine welfare and ASDC, leaving the current generation of poor children in worse shape than since the Great Depression).
All of these phony narratives were aimed at the working class. A key to their success was to make at least many working class women and men believe them. In some cases, working class organizations (or at least some of their leaders) promoted the Big, Bigger and Biggest of the lies.
And the most dangerous of all to working class people, because it helped cripple the unions that have always provided the actual strength of working class people when all the marching and chanting and singing are done, is what we should call "The PATCO Parable." The moral of The PATCO Parable story, if those who are ripping off the working class and trying to bust the Chicago Teachers Union get away with their version, is very simple...
STRIKES DON'T WORK!!! NEVER EVER AND EVER DO STRIKES WORK!
DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT STRIKING!
YOU'LL LOSE EVERYTHING!!!!
But then there is the reality of Chicago history, and specifically the history written (then wiped off the history books) of the Chicago Teachers Union and the unions representing the working class men and women in Chicago's public schools.
This trouble with the ruling class version of history and working class reality is, the unions of workers in Chicago's public schools, led by the Chicago Teachers Union, managed to strike and win four times after The PATCO Parable was birthed during the first weeks of August 1981. That's right: In 1983, 1984, 1965 and 1987 the Chicago Teachers Union struck and won after the official version of history said that was impossible. And by the end of those strikes, Chicago's teachers and other school workers had rehire rights (which were given away a few years later), class size maximums (that were enforced at each school by militant delegates under the union contract), medical benefits, and a host of other stuff that has been ripped away during the past 20 years, often with the collaboration of the leaders of the city's unions, and especially with the collaboration of some of the leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union.
For anyone who believes in the Web and the Internet, try to learn anything about Chicago's teachers' strikes during the 1980s, the ones that took place following PATCO's 1981 strike. Thanks to the ruthless revisionism of official historiography — aided and abetted by a generation of Professorial Patronage, including some who are widely considered "progressive" — and the destruction of its own history by a decade of leaders of some of Chicago's school unions, that history simply does not exist right now, even though it happened! Chicago teachers led four successful strikes after 1981, for a total of 42 days of striking. Yet it's easier to learn the latest theories of "de-schooling" pedagogy than anything about how public education was being defended by the city's unions during the years of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
Some of the history is being written now in Chicago, and clarifications are also coming nationally. An important new book takes us back to the origins of The PATCO Parable and provides us in 2012 with some things to think about regarding how we come to believe things that are not true and follow practices that destroy us. The PATCO Parable is central to a level of brainwashing that was attempted, and in some cases successfully brought to the minds of working class people during the decades of reaction that are ending now.
[Book Review: Collision Course , Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America. By Joseph A. McCartin. New York, Oxford University Press, 2012].
It's not surprising that in 2012, the ruling class's version of the PATCO story is popping up in some Chicago schools, and being repeated by some union members who should know better. Why? Because there are two realities when we talk about "PATCO."
There is PATCO the scary story that is supposed to frighten away working people and their unions from striking. (This version was even told to CTU members during the 1990s by the union's own leader, but that's another story for another time). This version of "PATCO" is the one capitalists and their minions want to working class to repeated, believe, and be frightened forever by. I'll call this one "The PATCO Parable," because it's being told as part of the neo-liberal religious teachings that include the other claptrap ("globalization," "common core," etc., etc.). In The PATCO Parable workers go on strike and all get fired and live unhappily ever after. So, the parable goes: DON'T STRIKE. Or, as one former Chicago Teachers Union president used to say: "The only strikes I want to hear about are in a bowling alley." That's the sellout version.
The PATCO reality is quite different. In 1981, after a complex series of decisions, the members of PATCO went on strike, were warned that it was illegal — completely illegal — for federal workers to strike, and were fired by President Ronald Reagan (whom by the way they had supported in the 1980 election). The PATCO reality was an illegal strike by government workers (who could be replaced by military people who knew the same work) and a right-wing President who called their bluff and when they wouldn't back down, screwed all of them.More about that PATCO reality in a minute. For now, one more note about The PATCO Parable. Supposedly, the "lessons" of The PATCO Parable were that workers couldn't strike. But PATCO was busted by Ronald Reagan in 1981, and in 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1987 the Chicago Teachers Union led general strikes against the Chicago Board of Education at the head of a coalition of unions that included, at one point, a dozen unions, ranging from the engineers to the truck drivers. And won. And won again. And beat back for a decade attempts to rip away the rights we had won as working people.
So why is The PATCO Parable still being repeated in 2012 as the Chicago Teachers Union moves toward what will be the first strike in 25 years? Because The PATCO Parable is one of the dominant narratives of the ruling class, and because it's likely to be repeated mindlessly by people who haven't paid attention to the actual history — or who don't want to.
So now there is a new book, an actual history of PATCO's rise and fall in the context of the realities of the time and the internal contradictions of PATCO. Truly, PATCO was murdered by Ronald Reagan and the ruling class. But the history shows that PATCO also contributed mightily to its demise, so that the Reagan murder was actually a kind of assisted suicide. Anyone who wants the details should read the new history "Collision Course" by Georgetown University historian and history professor Joseph A. McCartin. But I couldn't do better than quote a great deal from a recent review in The Nation by Chis Lehmann. "The conservative canonization of Ronald Reagan as the patron saint of the tax cut has always been a vexed rite," Lehmann writes. "For one thing, Reagan actually raised taxes in 1982, when the country was sunk in a grim recession and the president’s economic advisers were sounding alarms over the gaping hole created in the federal budget by his 1981 package of tax cuts. Regardless of what has recently been said about the Gipper on the GOP hustings, the awkward truth for conservatives is that he increased taxes to fund government spending, just as Keynesians are supposed to do.
"The true economic legacy of the Reagan years is an uglier practice: unionbusting, of the most brutal variety. To this day, commentators hail Reagan’s handling of the 1981 strike staged by the nation’s air traffic controllers as the defining moment of his fledgling presidency. Not only did the sudden dissolution of the strike — and the controllers’ union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization — seal the reputation of our first post–New Deal president as a bare-knuckles foe of liberalism’s most influential single constituency, organized labor; the PATCO episode also became mythologized as the landmark case of Reagan’s signature leadership style, an instinctive commitment to “stand firm and stand for the truth,” as GOP presidential candidate and Reagan disciple Newt Gingrich rhapsodized in a primary debate last year."
Although the PATCO myth is still dominant, it's important for us to understand what really happened. It was not the busting of a particular union, and certainly not a message for the future to the unions (unless the union's leaders wanted it to be told that way, which some did). It was a particular "collision" (as the book's title states) between a history of one group of workers and a president who was almost boxed in (by a Democratic Congresswoman of all people) into busting the union he had been friendly with. First, everyone must know that in 1981 federal workers did not have the right to form unions and bargain collectively over wages and hours, let alone strike. Government workers had the right to form unions only within tight rules, which laid out in Executive Order 10988, signed by John F. Kennedy in 1962. Kennedy’s order was actually the result of a fear on the part of the Kennedy administration that Congress was going to approve much more rights to organize for federal workers. But as Lehmann makes clear: "Beyond acknowledging that federal workers could use union representatives to air grievances about working conditions, the [Kennedy] order barred unions from negotiating wages and hours, and failed to establish an agency to oversee and arbitrate even the narrow sphere of grievances employees were permitted to raise. Kennedy’s labor secretary Arthur Goldberg and domestic adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan pushed hard for the order to include provisions for an official negotiating framework to handle union demands; as Moynihan argued at the time, 'if we do not grant this to the unions, in lieu of the right to strike, it is to be doubted that we will accomplish much. Indeed, unless we provide some way out of deadlocked negotiations, it would seem rather questionable to start down this road at all.'" Despite its limitations, Executive Order 10988 was a breakthrough for federal workers in particular and public workers in general. In various agencies, federal workers figured out how to utilize the limited rights they had to gain some ground. The most dramatic example of federal worker militancy came during the postal workers strike, which unfortunately led to some conclusions on the part of PATCO that proved erroneous. (Disclosure: my father was a postal worker, beginning his career before his military service during World War II and continuing following his 1945 discharge until his retirement four years after the strike). "The battle over collective bargaining rights for [federal] government employees had been deadlocked for a quarter-century or so before Kennedy’s order," Lehmann writes in his review of the McCarin book. "Even FDR, who in 1935 had signed the landmark Wagner Act into law, extending full collective bargaining rights to private sector workers, thought it 'unthinkable and intolerable' that federal employees might one day be permitted to strike for improved wages, hours and working conditions."
The roots of FDR’s hardline stance had been formed back in 1919, in the wave of post World War I strikes that swept across the USA (and led to some brutal ruling class suppression, including the infamous Palmer Raids that began the career of J. Edgar Hoover).
One of the strikes in 1919 was the Boston police strike. That strike was broken by then–Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, who saw his route to the White House paved with that action. Another one of the famous actions of 1919 was the Seattle General Strike, which the American Federation of Teachers deftly avoided paying tribute to during the AFT's 2010 convention in Seattle, while sucking up to Bill Gates, the anti-union billionaire. The strikes of the years immediately after World War I were, in general, defeats for the working class. But the lessons from those strikes helped bring about the kinds of strategies and tactics that proved successful for the unions of the USA during the Great Depression and, especially, after World War II. Like most working class people in the USA, the air traffic controllers who brought about the confrontation with the Reagan administration were a complex group. "Another signal irony of the PATCO saga," Lehmann writes in his Nation review, "was that the managerial-minded air traffic controllers turned out to be the most energetic vanguard in the struggle for genuine collective bargaining rights. Controllers had quickly recognized the need to exert greater supervision of their work routines. In 1960, two years before the Kennedy order, a midair collision over New York City involving two TWA and United commercial aircraft had claimed 134 lives, then the deadliest aviation accident in US history..." The 1960 tragedy, dramatically recounted at the beginning of McCartin's book, proved a watershed for the controllers, who were disgusted by the cover up of the actual causes of the tragedy by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Thus, just before the Kennedy order, the controllers were being primed for some kind of action. (The official FAA cause of the 1960 disaster was "pilot error" and not an obsolete air traffic control system, World War II equipment, and the stress on overworked and underpaid controllers in the towers around the USA as airlines expanded rapidly across the country in the Post World War II era).
Despite some stereotyping (including in the Lehman review in The Nation) that assumed that ex-soldier (which most controllers were) were not working class enough to organize like the controllers actually did, the controllers began organizing even before it became quasi-legal. The controllers were working class, almost exclusively white and male. (Think "Mad Men" in the towers). "... the personal backgrounds of many controllers softened their ambivalence about calls for unionization," the Nation review states. "Like many modern soldiers, and especially those swept up in the Vietnam-era draft, they came from blue-collar backgrounds, with union affiliations stretching back across generations. Whereas Jack Maher [one of the first leaders of the controllers], for instance, was a former marine, his uncle was an official with a Michigan plumbers’ union local; Maher’s chief lieutenant, Mike Rock—later to be known as “Strike Mike” for his ready recourse to the threat of a walkout—was the nephew of a leader of a tile-setters’ local. 'All the guys wanted to do something,' Maher recalled, and 'the only thing we saw is to organize in some fashion.'"
So the organizing began during the same years as the Civil Rights movement, the protests against the wars in Southeast Asia (and the G.I. Movement), and the other social and economic explosions of the "Sixties" (which really had begun in the 1950s and lasted into the 1970s). Like most messy historical realities, the origins of PATCO were varied. One of the things that helped the original controller leaders of PATCO get started was the support of the famous trail lawyer F. Lee Bailey. Bailey, who flew his own plane, got to know the controllers, helped finance their earliest organizing meetings, and represented them during their formative years.
Working as one of three organizations competing for the controllers' loyalty (and dues), "PATCO gained credibility among its membership by scoring an instant, high-profile victory," Lehman writes and McCartin narratives with unbelieveable accuracy. "For some time, controllers had been pushing the FAA to expand their ranks and thereby reduce the volume of mandatory overtime they were forced to work. From 1967 through mid-1968, controllers more than doubled their weekly overtime hours, from 8,903 to 21,460. Letters and petitions to the FAA proved fruitless, and so PATCO, forbidden by law to stage a strike, coordinated a nationwide work slowdown, something a group charged with modulating the flow of air traffic found exceedingly easy to do.
Bailey handled the PR side of the initiative, dubbed Operation Air Safety. In an appearance on the Tonight Show—Johnny Carson, an old friend of the lawyer, served as an honorary member of the PATCO board—Bailey played up the controllers’ plight, while also reassuring skittish travelers that the gatekeepers of air traffic would never go on strike. Still, he explained, a work slowdown strategy would produce dramatic results: “If they just followed regulations instead of cutting corners to get more airplanes in—just follow regulations—Kennedy, O’Hare, and L.A. would drop traffic by 50 percent.” When Carson asked, “Why don’t they do it?” Bailey replied, “I think they may at some point.” As McCartin dryly notes, 'the union’s first job action was forecast on a late-night comedy show.'"
The early victory, however, was to prove a dangerous precedent, because the leaders thought they could continue with the same kinds of tactics. An action in Spring 1970 almost cost PATCO its existence, when the organization promoted the so-called "Easter Uprising" (a title that shows something of the Irish-American roots of many of the organizers), which was a massive sick out. From a tactical point of view, the 1970 sick out was a success, in that it slowed air traffic across the USA and again showed the power of the controllers. But at the same time, it created a backlash which enabled the FAA to fire the leaders of the action and harass others. Clearly, tactics had to be carefully chosen in an industry that was governed by a "No Strike" — EVER — law. And this is something that makes the book intense reading as Chicago's teachers, in a city and state where teachers strikes are legal (and where an unprecedented number have already taken place in other Illinois cities this year) plan their tactics to go along with a clear strategy to win back power which the Chicago Teachers Union has sacrificed during its nearly two decades as, in effect, a company union.
The Sick Out was understood for what it was by both sides. "The action, as McCartin notes, was another landmark in government-labor relations—in substance, if not strictly in name, 'the first centrally planned national strike against the federal government.'" Lehmann's Nation review noted. "With controller absences running as high as 90 percent in some facilities, flight delays for travelers stretched across many frustrating hours. When one Chicago to Phoenix flight was delayed indefinitely at O’Hare, angry passengers stormed the ticket counter, and a few rushed onto the tarmac to lie down in front of another aircraft’s wheels until they were assigned a plane that would arrive in a more timely fashion."
Next came some interesting maneuvers by both the controllers and the Nixon administration. While some of the details of the maneuvering were almost bizarre, by the final days of the Nixon administration, Nixon and PATCO were in an alliance, and the workers who had been fired following the sick in were back to work. The reputation of PATCO and its confidence soared, setting the stage for the tragedy of 1980 and 1981.
The details of how PATCO leaders organized, the relationships between rank-and-file militancy and political action (with the federal government as its boss, controllers needed to work in Congress and with the White House), and the evolution of the era all led to the final errors of the PATCO leadership, the tragedy of 1981, Reagan's convoluted triumph (Reagan came out of 1980 friends with PATCO, but within 18 months had destroyed it), and then the careful recasting of the historical narrative to create the PATCO myth that endures in some circles to this day.
"Over the next decade, the union continued to rack up victories, and when the controllers’ contract with the FAA came due for renegotiation in 1981, PATCO leaders were confident they could prevail by raising the ante," Lehmann writes in the Nation, accurately reporting what McCartin tells so well as history. Many forget that during the late 1970s and early 1980s, "stagflation" had driven down the real wages of working people as inflation rates hit as high as ten percent. (I once was happy to get a mortgage at a rate that was "only" ten percent!). In the face of that reality, PATCO's leaders asked for an unprecedented $10,000 across-the-board pay increase for their members, together with a 10 percent raise in the contract’s second year, with a four-day workweek and several cost-of-living provisions thrown into the bargain." "And newly elected PATCO president Robert Poli — who’d succeeded the more irenic incumbent John Leyden in a surprise insurgent challenge — was keen to demonstrate his clout before the union’s restive rank and file," Lehmann writes in The Nation. "He presumed to be bargaining from a position of strength because during the run-up to contract negotiations, PATCO had sought to secure firm Washington backing with another surprise move: it endorsed Reagan in the 1980 election, partly as a matter of heeding the shifting national mood, and partly out of sheer exasperation with the Carter administration’s handling of key controller concerns. At the same time, Poli and senior union officials were coordinating plans to conduct a walkout should talks with the government stall; they charged a roving band of controllers known as the Choirboys with enlisting support for the union’s contract demands and a prospective work stoppage. The group’s name underscored the rank and file’s need to sing off the same page, while also name-checking Joseph Wambaugh’s bestselling 1975 tough-guy tribute to Los Angeles cops..."
The final trouble was that tactics had become strategy. When Poli came back to his membership with what amounted to "half a loaf" after negotiations (which Reagan would have allowed), Poli's own militants organized a rejection of the contract. The President of the United States ordered the workers back to work from their clearly illegal strike, the president of the workers' union was unable to get the contract he had negotiated in the face of the militancy of his own rank-and-file, and the strike was crushed, the strikers fired, and the legends and myths of "PATCO" began pouring out from the ruling class. Is there are lesson from "PATCO" for Chicago in 2012?
There are probably several. But the single one that stick in my mind tonight as I write this and return over and over to the very well-researched and written history MaCartin has provided for us is this: a teachers' strike in Chicago is not illegal. The 1981 PATCO strike was illegal. While there may be times when workers can "win" from an illegal strike, unity in strategy and tactics will always be necessary. Careful planning and intelligent princpled leadership are also necessary.
There is another piece of the history of this era that is understated in both McCartin's book and in most of the essays I've read so far. The evolution of the working class in the USA from the white male supremacist days of the 1950s and 1960s into what we are today. Here the analogy to "Mad Men" may help. The controllers were truly working class (despite the strange bias in Lehmann's Nation characterization, as if military veterans — "Ex Marines" — were not somehow working class). But as in many jobs that working class men held in those days, they were also defending a culture that viewed their crafts as a monopoly for their tribe — and which closed many doors to those outside the tribe (including minorities and women). Hence, at many points the PATCO "wives" worked the picket lines because the controllers were not allowed to. But the point was, there was rarely a stay-at-home husband to picket on behalf of his wife, who was a controller.
McCartin does a very good job of reporting the history of how the nation's control towers were finally integrated, not without struggle. His interviews with the first African American and female controllers brings the struggles of those years into clear focus. But it can't be overlooks that the air traffic controllers, even during their most benighted moments of white male racism and sexism, were working class, and that their struggles were signal among the struggles of the working class during those years.
The working class men with whom I grew up in New Jersey and New York during those years were working class, and those unions were really unions. The men where I lived (in Linden New Jersey) were virtually all World War II veterans and working class (as were the wives and children, despite the condescension of some "progressives," as still evident in the Nation review), just like the people who created PATCO and were the victims of the destruction of PATCO and the vicious blacklisting that followed.
Hence, there is a lot more that we need to share about these complex class realities. McCartin helps us understand the complexity of much of American working class and union history from those years in his PACTO book. The incredible amount of research — both from interviews with human sources and the use of every available archive — is an example of what a historian with the time and clear eye can do.
And as such it stands now as a rebuke to the crazy PATCO Parable that has endured as a kind of ruling class morality tale since 1981. But I have to add one last thing to this review, and that is the way in which some "progressives" deal with blacklists. McCartin describes in brutal detail how the Reagan blacklist of the controllers worked in the years after 1981. And as I was reading it, I wondered why the only blacklisting from that era that has reached popular progressive consciousness was the narrow version created during the brief reign of McCarthyism. Many of us have been blacklisted. Just as The PATCO Parable dominates the ruling class version of those years of working class history, and must be escaped, so does another version, equally inaccurate, dominated some "progressive" narratives about history.
In Chicago, we are in the verge of confronting both and, hopefully, creating that new narrative that has been needed for too too long.