The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

After PATCO, a 25-year Detour in the Workers’ Road

Aug 7, 2006

On August 3, l981–25 years ago–the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union (PATCO) went out on strike against cutbacks in personnel in the country’s air traffic control rooms.

Bosses around the country were already engaged in the drive for concessions which has marked the past quarter of a century. Under President Carter they had cut back unemployment compensation.

But when they attempted to ram concessions down the throats of the miners, they failed spectacularly. In 1977, the coal interests backed by the Carter Administration tried to reduce Black Lung benefits for miners and impose speed-up and job cuts. The miners shut down the industry in a national strike for 111 days.

President Carter threatened to send the National Guard into the coal fields. Miners said, “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.” Carter invoked the Taft-Hartley law and threatened to get a court injunction forcing the miners back to work. The miners refused to obey even when most of their leaders said they had to respect the courts.

The miners knew that the bosses and the government were their enemies, not their “partners.” They acted accordingly. By spring of l978, President Carter and the coal bosses were the ones who backed down.

Thus the companies and their government needed to flex their muscles. They pushed to smash the PATCO strike as a spectacular demonstration of what would happen to anyone else who decided to resist.

President Ronald Reagan declared all the striking air traffic controllers fired and brought in controllers from the military to replace them. It was union busting on a national scale, a naked challenge to every union: What are you going to do about it?

The union leadership in their umbrella organization, the AFL-CIO, responded by lifting one little finger–slightly. They gave PATCO a little money and after six weeks organized a weekend demonstration in Washington, D.C. They called it Solidarity Day. But that was all. One day of speeches. Not even a work day.

Of course, Solidarity Day could have been a way to begin–even six weeks late. But for the union leaders it was also the end. The union leaders never mustered any real force where workers have power–in the places of production.

Intimidated by the attack on PATCO, most of the top union leaders since then have been trying to sell us on the idea that strikes are useless, that workers’ struggle has to be replaced by a partnership between the bosses and the unions.

It was not true then and it is not true now. But for 25 years most union leaders have refused any other course of action.

The results are littered all around us.

Huge, obscenely wealthy corporations eliminate thousands upon thousands of jobs. The bosses demand that every remaining worker do the work that 3 or 4 used to do. Retirees’ accrued vested pensions are wiped out by phony bankruptcies and the bang of a judge’s gavel. The minimum wage has not been raised in 9 years, and its purchasing power is now the lowest since 1955! There are no good jobs to be found.

Meanwhile, corporate profits are higher than before the Great Depression of the 1930s. The average CEO is now paid 292 times what the average worker is paid. A Senate investigative committee says that tax evasion by the wealthy is “out of control.”

We have to get off this detour into “partnership” that union leaders have pushed for 25 years. There’s no way to be “partners” with our enemies. The sooner we stop listening to that lie, the better!

There is a road back for the working class. There is a way to stop losing ground–it’s to take the road the miners took.