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PEP April 2012
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Public Employee Press

PATCO: The '81 strike that changed America

The book "Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, The Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America" should come with a warning on the cover: "Do not read on an airplane!" Author Joseph McCartin describes a midair collision as he paints a vivid picture of the stress-filled jobs of the workers who guide planes in and out of the nation's airports.

McCartin, a history professor, succeeds in writing the book as a thriller. You can feel the stress and watch as this group, mainly ex-military men, with very few minorities and women in their ranks, confront their conditions by organizing PATCO - the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization - which led their ranks out on an illegal strike in 1981.

McCartin reminds us that PATCO members were primarily conservative and endorsed Ronald Reagan for president, but he also digs deeper into their history. He shows us the blue-collar union roots of the lead organizers, the strategic thinking that rapidly expanded the union nationwide, the intolerable working conditions and the rigid management that polarized the environment of the workplaces.

"It cost more to break the PATCO walkout than any other labor conflict in American history," McCartin tells us. The taxpayers footed the $2 billion cost of training replacement controllers, Reagan paid the highest fee ever to a law firm to bust a union, and the Federal Aviation Administration took years to recover.

"If PATCO loses this strike, no union is safe," said another union's flier. Indeed, Reagan seemed to legitimize strikebreaking by using permanent replacement workers, and the effects of union busting on this unprecedented scale were devastating to the labor movement.

The PATCO defeat had a "dispiriting psychological impact that magnified the effects of the multiple problems that beset American unions," said McCartin, and played a role in the subsequent decline of American labor.

The book is available for members to borrow in the Education Fund Library, Room 211.

—Jane LaTour

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