Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Several years ago I saw an interesting but depressing movie with Michael Douglas called "Falling Down." It starts off with Douglas sitting in Los Angeles freeway traffic, except the traffic isn't moving at all and there seems to be no reason. He gets so frustrated that he gets out and just walks away from his car. He tries to get change at a small market to make a phone call - he's late for his daughter's birthday party - but the owner says he has to buy something. Unfortunately, everything is more than a dollar and he gets angry and ends up smashing up a bunch of shelves. Then he's confronted by some gang members but he chases them off and things keep escalating. He thinks of himself as "standing up" for all the people who've been taken advantage of, and it's easy to relate to his frustrations. Unfortunately, he's actually gone crazy and the title "Falling Down" is a clever twist on his presumed "standing up" for himself.

Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America by Joseph A. McCartin tells a similarly tragic but real story of the August 1981 strike. The Air Traffic Controllers union, PATCO, called for the strike in response to poor treatment and broken promises from the FAA over decades. They had endured poor working conditions in an overburdened system with little response or respect from the government. But as government (public) employees they did not have collective bargaining rights (something the FAA frequently exploited) and had signed an oath not to strike. While they had engaged in "slow downs" causing worldwide delays and disruptions in air traffic, on August 3, 1981 they did the unthinkable and walked off the job.

Surprisingly, PATCO had supported Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. Reagan himself had been president of the Screen Actors Guild (a private union) and had overseen strikes, and in return for his promise to make amends the union took the unusual stance of supporting a Republican candidate. And while Reagan offered an unprecedented package of wage and benefits increases, it fell short of the overly optimistic demands of the union. It was a matter of principles that drove the overworked air traffic controllers to call an illegal strike, but it was also a matter of principles that drove Reagan's decision to fire those who didn't return to their jobs within 48 hours, and hire new controllers in spite of the enormous cost to the government. The controllers thought they couldn't lose when they stood up for themselves, but ended up out of work with no other market for their highly specialized skills.

Although I wasn't even in high school yet, I remember the extensive news coverage of the strike and hearing grownups talking about it. I am neither pro- nor anti-union, but I minored in economics in college and have taken a number of Labor Econ and Negotiation classes and find the subject interesting. While I generally feel that unions are often more detrimental to the economy than beneficial, one of my teachers once said that any company who had its employees unionize probably deserved it. In other words, if they'd treated their employees decently they wouldn't have to deal with a union. And Mr. McCartin does a very good job of showing the unfair conditions that led to unionization and its later militancy. You understand very well the principles the strikers felt they had to stand up for and why they were willing to put their jobs on the line. But at the same time he explains Reagan's generous offer and demonstrates why Reagan made it a matter of principle to dismiss them, even though it was a risky and expensive move.

But this is more than just the story of a strike that was broken in 1981 - it had profound implications for the labor movement and still reverberates today. I realize nothing could sound more boring than a history of the Air Traffic Controllers Strike, but Mr. McCartin brings it to life in a dramatic and personal way and mostly manages to keep it at arm’s-length instead of vilifying either side. While I can easily see this being assigned reading in Labor Economics classes, I think it has much wider appeal and will be enjoyed by lots of history buffs. (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)


  1. My dad got a job as an Air Traffic Controller because of the strike. He was one of the men who took their jobs. Such a stressful job! He didn't like it - though he did it for several years. I remember him talking about how frustrating it was to deal with the union and the workers when I was older and able to understand a little.

  2. Hi Liz. I certainly don't envy your dad. According to the book the replacements had it especially stressful and it took several years for the FAA to get back to pre-strike levels of employment. And while work conditions for the controllers improved it didn't happen overnight. Interesting, though, that your dad had firsthand experience with some of that.