Authors: Kurt Andersen
A few years ago when I first read the book
by the British business journalist Paul Mason, I came across a paragraph that stopped me short because it seemed so hyperbolic and reductive. But now it seems to me very much closer to true than untrue. In the 1970s and ’80s, Mason says, the political leaders from the economic right
drew a conclusion that has shaped our age: that a modern economy cannot coexist with an organized working class….The destruction of labour’s bargaining power…was the essence of the entire [conservative] project: it was a means to all the other ends…not free markets, not fiscal discipline, not sound money, not privatization and offshoring—not even globalization. All these things were byproducts or weapons of its main endeavor: to remove organized labor from the equation.
As the modern corporation emerged and grew and multiplied starting in the late 1800s, so did unions. In the 1880s fewer than 5 percent of American workers belonged to a union, and in 1930 it was still only around 10 percent. But after the Depression and New Deal and World War II, more than a third of the U.S. private workforce was unionized, and in 1950 a large majority of blue-collar workers in the North belonged to unions. In the late 1950s state laws started changing so that teachers and other public employees could also join unions, and eventually more than a third of them became unionized. As labor unions grew larger and more powerful, negotiating higher salaries, America’s wealth was more and more equally shared.
As I’ve said, by the 1960s and ’70s, Americans were taking for granted the benefits and prosperity that organized labor had been crucial in achieving for workers in general, and many were becoming disenchanted with unions. After the unionization of workers at corporations peaked in the 1950s, that overall percentage slid to a quarter by the early 1970s—just when big business and the right started powerfully organizing capital to
fight against organized labor.
In 1979 moviegoers, especially liberal moviegoers, made a hit out of the movie
. Sally Field won an Academy Award for playing the title role. It was based on the true story of a J. P. Stevens textile factory worker in North Carolina who organized a union and a successful strike—which led quickly to the unionization of three thousand textile workers at other plants in the same town. The real events had happened only a few years earlier, so the movie encouraged viewers to imagine, incorrectly, that U.S. labor power wasn’t half-dead—yet it simultaneously played as wistful nostalgia.
The political winds had definitely shifted. Also in 1979 public TV producers at WGBH in Boston were developing a ten-episode dramatic series called
Made in USA
about the history of the labor movement. They’d planned on having unions put up a quarter of the budget—but in early 1980, the president of PBS in Washington stepped in to forbid that, because unions had a political agenda. After it was pointed out that Milton Friedman’s PBS series
Free to Choose,
airing right then (including the antiunion episode “Who Protects the Worker?”), was funded by corporations and rich people with a political agenda, PBS relented, but after the controversy and then Reagan’s election in the fall, that project died.
Consider what happened to political action committees, the tremendous new sources of campaign donations. From 1976 on, another two or three business-funded PACs were created
on average, compared to one union-funded PAC every few months. In the early 1970s, union PACs were still donating
of the PAC money going to U.S. Senate and House candidates; by 1980 they were donating not just much less than the business groups but less than a quarter of the total given by all PACs.
In 1977 President Carter declined to work hard for a bill that would’ve given construction workers greater power to strike, and it was defeated in the House, where Democrats had a two-to-one majority. The next year the same Congress was considering a labor law change that would’ve made it easier for all workers to unionize. The CEOs of fully unionized GM and GE were disinclined to oppose the bill, but their fellow Business Roundtable member who ran the barely unionized Sears persuaded them to lobby against it—and capitalist solidarity carried the day. It too was defeated. Carter and most Democrats shrugged.
That was a final straw for the president of the United Automobile Workers (and Lee Iacocca’s good pal), Douglas Fraser. At the time, the White House regularly convened a semiofficial Labor-Management Group that brought together CEOs, many of them members of the new Roundtable, with union leaders. “I know that some of the business representatives…argued inside the Business Roundtable for neutrality” on the bill, Fraser wrote in his letter resigning from the White House group in 1978, “but having lost, they helped to bankroll (through the Roundtable and other organizations) the dishonest and ugly multimillion-dollar [publicity and lobbying] campaign against labor law reform” that “stands as the most vicious, unfair attack upon the labor movement in more than 30 years. Corporate leaders knew it was not the ‘power grab by Big Labor’ that they portrayed it to be.” He went on to deliver an impassioned real-time critique of the axiomatic shift just beginning:
The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress….At virtually every level, I discern a demand by business for docile government and unrestrained corporate individualism. Where industry once yearned for subservient unions, it now wants no unions at all.
If destroying labor’s bargaining power was the essence of the project of the economic right, its essential act was performed single-handedly by Ronald Reagan six months into his presidency.
The typical air traffic controller was an archetypal Reagan Democrat—a white man from a working-class background without a college degree but highly skilled and well paid. In the late 1960s, the controllers in New York had started a union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), which before long almost all controllers in the United States joined. Two weeks before the 1980 election, it was one of the very few unions to endorse Reagan against the preachy, unreliable Democrat in the White House. “You supports them that supports you,” one of the top PATCO leaders explained, “and you don’t support them that don’t support you.” That is, when you can’t count on Democrats
Republicans to support you on your economic issues, you might as well support the ones who agree with you about hippies and professors and welfare recipients.
Two weeks after Reagan became president, his administration began negotiating a new contract with the controllers, who were federal employees. The ultimate leverage any union has, obviously, is the threat that its members will stop working if they and their employers can’t come to terms. The same bit of the U.S. criminal code that prohibits any federal employee from advocating the overthrow of the government, enacted in 1955 during the anti-Communist frenzy, also makes it a crime for any of them to go out on strike. A couple of times a year during the 1960s and ’70s, groups of federal employees had stopped working to get what they wanted, including a weeklong wildcat strike by a minority of postal workers in 1970, but no federal workers had ever officially threatened to cut off essential services to get a better labor contract. Push had never really come to shove.
PATCO was thus in a singularly powerful and precarious position. No civilian federal employees had more strike-threat leverage than air traffic controllers: all of U.S. aviation and thus the U.S. economy depended on them. Right before their contract expired in the spring of 1981, the brand-new president had survived his assassination attempt, which increased Americans’ approval of him to 68 percent. The controllers were already earning the equivalent of $100,000 a year on average and now asked for a 40 percent increase in pay, a four-day work week, and retirement after twenty years. Union leaders agreed to a lesser deal, but then the members rejected it.
Liberals were not in solidarity with PATCO. A
New York Times
BRING THE CONTROLLERS DOWN TO EARTH
said that “the Reagan Administration is making a more than reasonable offer” in response to “the union’s exorbitant terms,” and a later editorial said that if “President Reagan were now to sweeten the deal…he would only be inviting other Government employees in key positions to exploit their leverage.” In
The Washington Monthly,
twenty-three-year-old Jonathan Alter, just out of Harvard and not yet a celebrated liberal journalist and author, wrote that the episode “proved” Reagan and the right correct, that the federal government was bloated, “as badly featherbedded as we’ve feared.”
The lead-up to the strike was a big national story for months, then the biggest for some weeks. First thing in the morning on the first Monday in August 1981, when the
ran another anti-PATCO editorial (
HOLDING UP AMERICA
), the thirteen thousand controllers stopped working. Reagan said they had two days to come back, and on Wednesday the 90 percent who didn’t were fired—and prohibited from holding any federal job ever again.
Two months later the fired strikers’ replacements took a vote to get rid of the union, and that was that.
editorial said that it was “hard to feel much sympathy for the controllers.” Sure. In retrospect, however, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for them, and even more, it’s hard not to feel deep regret that so many left-of-center Americans had abandoned the fundamental commitment to the
of unions. The air traffic controllers’ strike and the right-wing president’s instant, unchallenged destruction of their union was the turning point. Losing that battle, American organized labor effectively lost the war.
As part of the New Deal, a fundamental federal law had been passed guaranteeing employees of businesses the right to organize unions and go on strike. Three years later, in 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that the Mackay Radio & Telegraph Company had broken that law after a strike by refusing specifically to rehire its organizers—but the court’s decision also said, in passing, that not only were companies free to hire replacement workers during strikes but that after a strike ended, companies were free to keep employing the strikebreakers. The strikers’ only right was to be rehired for any additional jobs that might open up soon. The logic of that Mackay Doctrine, that strikers aren’t technically
if they’re replaced by scabs, is absurd. Despite that 1938 decision, the American
that emerged out of the New Deal was that for companies to replace striking workers was unacceptably unfair—a norm that remained in force until its spectacular de facto repeal by Reagan during the air traffic controllers’ strike.
In the years right after the 1981 strike, companies all over the country made and remade the point again and again—big strike, strikebreakers brought in, national press attention, strike continued and disastrously failed, unions dissolved or rendered impotent. And the old Mackay Doctrine, which had sat on a back shelf for half a century, let them.
One of the big American mining companies realized that the moment for good-old-days antiunion ferocity had returned: a year after a strike began in Arizona and the company replaced striking copper miners with strikebreakers, its workers all over the Southwest were persuaded to do away with their unions.
A year after that the meat company Hormel demanded that its slaughterhouse workers take a one-quarter cut in wages that hadn’t gone up in almost a decade. Workers at a Minnesota plant went on strike, strikebreakers were hired, and most of the strikers never got their jobs back.
International Paper had tripled its profits from 1985 to 1987—but as a recently public company, its 10 percent rate of profit wasn’t good enough anymore to satisfy the demands of shareholder supremacy, so its executives decided to end the company’s long history of worker-friendliness. In a town in Maine where the International Paper mill was everything, and typical workers earned the equivalent of $87,000 a year, the union made an opening bid to renew their contract with no wage increase at all. The company responded with a plan to lay off 15 percent of them and, for those remaining, do away with extra pay on weekends and holidays. The workers went on strike, the company hired replacements from out of town, a year later the strikers surrendered, and sorry, no job openings, bye.
Hiring strikebreakers, for decades a rarity in corporate America because it had been considered old-fashioned and brutish, was
old-fashioned and tough: during the late 1980s, more than a third of the companies where workers went on strike threatened to replace the strikers, and half of those did.
The deterrent effect was extreme. Strikes very quickly became almost obsolete, like vinyl LPs and rotary-dial telephones. Between World War II and 1980, our great era of prosperity and increasing equality, almost every year there had been at least two hundred strikes involving at least a thousand workers. Some years there were more than four hundred big strikes. Since 1981, there haven’t been a hundred big strikes in any year, and in this century there have never been more than twenty-two in a year. As recently as the early 1970s, 2.5 million American workers would go on strike in a given year, but 1979 was the last time that more than a million went out. It doesn’t seem like coincidence that the rise and fall of strikes during the twentieth century correlates very closely with the rise and sudden stagnation of U.S. wages.
After the don’t-make-scabs-permanent norm was abandoned in the 1980s, Democrats tried to get their act together, kind of, early in the next decade. The House passed a bill to outlaw what was now happening—companies effectively firing strikers for striking. Remember how back in the 1970s
The Washington Post
had hired permanent replacements for its striking pressmen, thus busting that union? Twenty years later, when the bill prohibiting that got to the Senate, the
editorialized against it as “a sop to organized labor” and “bad legislation”—because sometimes “strikers by their behavior forfeit the right of return and companies ought to hire permanent replacements. This newspaper faced such a breach in dealing with one of its unions in the 1970s.” Days later, despite a large Democratic majority in the Senate, the prospective law was filibustered to death by the Republican minority.