By Joseph McCartin
As Americans celebrate Labor Day 2012, the movement whose struggles led to the creation of this national holiday – the union movement – arguably faces its most profound crisis since Congress declared this national holiday in 1894. Indeed with the labor market weakened by the Great Recession and unemployment stubbornly high according the just released August job numbers, labor’s prospects seem bleak. Union membership has slipped under 12 percent overall, and under 7 percent in the private sector, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, the federal agency that has been charged with protecting workers’ rights to organize for the past 76 years, the National Labor Relations Board, has come under sharper attack than any time since its earliest years. Adding to these woes, union leaders have been disappointed by President Barack Obama’s seeming reluctance to expend much of his limited political capital on defending workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.
Complicating labor’s problems are two long-range trends: the rise of efforts to roll back collective bargaining in the public sector and the declining ability of unions to use strikes to effectively pressure employers to improve their wages or benefits. Both of those trends received a crucial boost from an event whose thirtieth anniversary we mark this year, the 1981 confrontation between the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and President Ronald Reagan.
The PATCO strike took place in a context far different from the one labor faces today. When more than 11,000 air traffic controllers staged their 1981 walkout in defiance of laws that prohibit federal workers’ strikes only to be fired by President Reagan, the public sector union movement was just concluding a twenty-year period of remarkable growth. Between the enactment of the first statewide collective bargaining law for government workers in Wisconsin in 1959 and Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the membership rolls of public sector unions grew nearly ten-fold. While government workers’ unions were not decimated by the PATCO debacle, their forward momentum stalled. At the same time, they watched the private sector unions dwindle. Now, thirty years later, government workers constitute a majority of American union members and private sector unions continue to retreat. As private sector union membership declines, public sector unions find themselves in the political crosshairs: they find it harder to justify the decent wages and benefits they have won for their members at a time when non-government workers are suffering. It is this context that has energized recent attacks on collective bargaining in the public sector. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin who has led the charge to roll back union rights in his state explicitly cited Reagan’s firing of the PATCO strikers as his inspiration.
The PATCO debacle also inspired another trend: the long-term decline in workers’ capacity to stage effective strikes. The ability to strike has always been the ultimate weapon for unions. The 1935 Wagner Act recognized workers’ rights to strike, and workers freely exercised that right during the first three decades after World War II. Most employers during those years were reluctant to exercise their own legal rights during those years by hiring replacement workers to take the place of those who struck for better wages or working conditions. But the PATCO strike helped to change that. Once President Reagan demonstrated that the public could support the wholesale permanent replacement of striking workers, prominent private sector employers rushed to imitate Reagan’s example. A string of high profile defeats in which unions were broken followed in the 1980s. Since then the number of effective strikes has continued to diminish at a rate that makes declines in union membership pale in comparison: the number of U.S. workers who participated in strikes dropped by 98 percent between 1952 and 2010.
Increasingly unable to strike effectively in the private sector and under fire in the public sector, unions find themselves in difficult straits on this Labor Day. Whether they can turn around their fortunes in coming years remains to be seen. But amid these difficult times unions and their supporters can at least draw some encouragement from an unlikely source: Ronald Reagan himself. Contrary to the assumptions of some of his most ardent followers today, Reagan, who led the Screen Actors Guild before embarking on his political career, never sought to eliminate public sector collective bargaining or to deny private sector workers the ability to strike. As governor of California he extended public sector collective bargaining to local government workers in 1968 through the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act. And even in the midst of the PATCO strike he was careful not to assail strikes in general, only illegal walkouts against the federal government. “Let me make one thing plain,” he said, as he issued his famous ultimatum to the air traffic controllers. “I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike. Indeed, as president of my own union, I led the first strike ever called by that union.”
That the views of conservatives’ favorite president appear surprisingly moderate today illustrates how far politics have moved to the right since Reagan’s time. Whether this anti-union shift will remain sustainable in a society where inequality is growing is open to question. Americans in general have sympathy for underdogs and in politics tend to follow the dictum that overdoing is undoing. Thus, paradoxically, the growing sense that labor is on the ropes could in the end provide the necessary prelude to its revival.
Joseph A. McCartin is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University and an expert on 20th century US labor issues. His most recent book is Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.