Reagan versus US workers

Ronald Reagan's death at the age of 93 has prompted a wave of gushing eulogies. The entire US nation, we are informed, is grief stricken. President Reagan restored the US's confidence and single-handedly ended the Cold WarÂ… So they say.

Actually, Ronald Reagan was widely hated and rightly so. And not only in those tiny Central American countries that his government invaded, but also by the US workers.

Reagan became President during a economic crisis for US capitalism. His solution was an aggressive attack on American workers and the poor. Like Thatcher in the UK, Reagan cut back the precious social gains US workers had won. He tried to smash the power of the unions.

Crucial to that strategy was a battle Reagan pursued, and won, against the air traffic controllers' union.

On 3 August 1981, 12,500 air traffic controllers, members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), walked off their jobs with the Federal Aviation Administration. Reagan vowed to fire the controllers if they did not return to work within 48 hours.

On the first day of the strike 85 percent of union controllers were out. Two days later, Reagan fired the striking controllers.

PATCO were demanding wage increases, safer working conditions, a 32 hour week, and end to long shift patterns. As federal employees they were, however, barred from striking.

The FAA organised a scabbing operation. According to the union, 481 near misses were reported in the first year of the strike, compared to 10 reported in the 10 years before the walkout.

Militants were arrested, jailed and fined. Some PATCO members with federal mortgages lost their homes.

The union was fined millions of dollars, and its $3.5 million strike fund was frozen. Eventually, the government succeeded in decertifying PATCO.

The president of the US union federation, the AFL-CIO, denounced Reagan's attack on PATCO. But a letter was also sent to AFL-CIO affiliates, discouraging them from taking any type of strike action in solidarity.

After Reagan left office in 1989 he had succeeded in massively increasing inequality in American society. The union-busting at PATCO weakened the one group best equipped to combat growing income inequality: organised labour.

The AFL-CIO's Solidarity Day march in Washington, D.C., in September 1981, came a few weeks into the PATCO strike, and drew half a million union people. The following contemporary account of that march shows the mood of American organised labour. The rank and file was certainly united against Reagan, and there was a great potential for organising solidarity. The prior weaknesses of the union movement, were to work against that. Nonetheless the huge demonstration was a watershed experience in the history of American labour.

The solidarity march was even bigger than the great 1968 march which helped to undo Nixon's policies in Vietnam. In other ways the march was a new experience in post-war Washington. Because, though many groups and parties supported the demonstration, it was overwhelmingly a demonstration of organised labour.

It was the first major demonstration to have been organised for decades by the AFL-CIO. The young generation of bureaucrats [at the AFL-CIO] still see their main political role as negotiating with administrations of either main political party, and not as mobilising their members.

But the fact that they felt obliged to seriously build the Washington demonstration certainly marks a change of key in American trade union strategy.

They have been shaken out of their lethargy by a membership which has found increasingly that union membership is no protection in today's America against declining wages, cutbacks in public services and union-busting.

Last year real average income in the US fell by five per cent - more than in any year since 1947.

And now Reagan's all-out attack on federal government spending threatens new problems for the users of welfare services and in particular for federal and local government employees, who are already facing lay-offs all over the country and have seen Reagan restrict their wage rises to much less than the rise in the cost of living.

The most widely sported badge in Washington was one showing support for the PATCO strike. Even the strong and excellent speech by the PATCO member whose photograph, in chains and held by federal marshals, has become a world-wide symbol of union-busting ended by thanking the AFL-CIO for their support (but no solidarity action).

When so many obvious blacking measures could immeasurably strengthen the strike overnight, PATCO's gratitude shows just how low are the expectations of inter-union solidarity in the US.

For all the very strong words of condemnation of Reagan on 19 September - more uncompromising than against any president in recent history - the trade unions are not turning to build their own independent political alternative.

The AFL-CIO has matched its opposition to Reagan with a deeper than ever compromise with the Democratic Party. The main unions are hoping that, by becoming its financial mainstay, they can get a pro-labour platform and candidates in the 1982 congressional and 1984 presidential elections.

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