[Excerpt] The 1981 strike by over 11,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) stands out as a symbol of union decline. This dismal legacy is a product of President Ronald Reagan’s harsh response to the job action, an ultimatum for controllers to return to work followed by wholesale permanent replacement of the strikers. Although PATCO’s members were federal employees, their dismissal is typically portrayed as an invitation for all employers to emulate the President. The subsequent sharp drop in private sector strike activity has been traced (both rhetorically and statistically) to PATCO’s demise, and even concessionary bargaining in industries far removed from the federal government and air transportation has been linked to this event.
Although the direct negative effect of PATCO has almost certainly been exaggerated, there is no doubt that the strike symbolizes the dramatic shift in labor’s fortunes in the 1980s. In the first half of that decade private sector membership fell by three million, for a loss in union density of nearly one-third (Hirsch and Macpherson, 2006). The decline was caused by a myriad of factors—twin recessions in the early 1980s, globalization, deregulation, a shift in the economy from manufacturing to services, and increased employer anti- unionism facilitated by the Reagan administration’s conservative National Labor Relations Board. Also culpable were unions themselves as they clung to outmoded methods and stubbornly resisted change. PATCO’s only link to this array of forces working against labor was the part it played in Ronald Reagan’s offensive on the labor movement.
The penchant of journalists and academics to stigmatize PATCO by focusing exclusively on its role as fodder for the Reagan administration’s anti-unionism detracts from important aspects of the unorthodox strategy of this fascinating labor organization. Although there were fatal tactical flaws in the PATCO game plan, this is one union that refused to be captive to past practices, instead developing creative approaches and pursuing an aggressive change agenda. A review of the organization’s operations and priorities in the years leading up to the 1981 strike will facilitate an assessment of how PATCO’s strategy compares to subsequent initiatives to transform U.S. unions.