Book Review: Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America

In 1981, Ronald Reagan, the only U.S. President who had also been a union president, fired 10,000 air traffic controllers. As Joseph McCartin argues in his new book Collision Course, “No strike in American history unfolded more visibly before the eyes of the American people or impressed itself more quickly and more deeply into the public consciousness of its time than the PATCO strike. No strike proved more costly to break. And no strike since the advent of the New Deal damaged the U.S. labor movement more” (pg. 300).   

In this beautifully written tragic story McCartin describes the history of the union, the events leading up to the collision between Reagan and PATCO (The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization), the strike itself, and the aftermath. He begins with one of the most important airplane crashes in history, the 1960 mid-air collision in Brooklyn, NY that killed 134 people. This crash created the impetus for air traffic controllers, who at the time were mostly white, working class veterans, to organize.  The story of how PATCO was formed is riveting in itself, but McCartin does so much more in this book. He shows us how union culture, leadership, and state policy interact in shaping strategic decision-making. The book is painful, for those of us who care about unions because it so clearly shows how different decisions at different times can change the course of history.  In this case, PATCO, after thirteen years of being spit on by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and a number of effective, but inconsequential slow-downs, was not going to give up, even despite the fact that Reagan actually offered them a precedent setting contract, given the limitations of federal employee bargaining. The union decided to vote down the FAA’s last and final offer and went on strike. Reagan gave the air traffic controllers 48 hours to return to work. Only 10 percent of workers returned. The vast majority of strikers couldn’t believe that a skilled workforce could actually be replaced.

Reagan was brutal and relentless in the aftermath of the strike. His permanent replacement of strikers not only damaged the lives of thousands of air traffic controllers and their families, it also gave employers in the private sector the ideological weapons to start breaking strikes at unprecedented levels. McCartin, convincingly and eloquently shows that in the post-PATCO era, the number of strikes plummeted as the number of anti-union consulting firms skyrocketed. Employers only needed to threaten strike replacements and unions would agree to concessions. McCartin offers some damning statistics, “only 46,000 workers participated in major work stoppages in 2002, less than 2 percent of the comparable figure for 1952. But even those anemic numbers seemed high by 2009 when the government reported only five major work stoppages involving a mere thirteen thousand workers—ironically, a tally that roughly equaled the number of workers who had walked off the job in a single, momentous strike on August, 3 1981” (p.363).  The PATCO strike changed the course of the labor movement, impacting shop floor organizing, worker resistance, and union militancy to this day.

Collision Course is the definitive book on PATCO. It is a riveting story, meticulously written, well researched, and a must read for anyone who is interested in the areas of work and labor.

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