When Reagan Broke the Unions : Planet Money When air traffic controllers went on strike in 1981, Reagan gave them 48 hours to return. Labor would never be the same. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

When Reagan Broke the Unions

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JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: I was talking the other day with Dean Karlan. He is an economist who has studied why people donate money. And as we were talking, he mentioned this sort of econ 101 question that is useful in thinking about this. The question is, when we're far away from home and eating out, why do we leave a tip?

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For decades, Ron Palmer kept a secret from his colleagues - this secret.

RON PALMER: The reason why I got the name Ron - Ronald - was because my grandmother was madly in love with Ronald Reagan.

MALONE: That'd be back when Ronald Reagan was a movie star. But the reason Ron Palmer hid this fact professionally was because of what happened about 40 years later.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.


This speech is from August 3, 1981.


PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Ladies and gentlemen, I have a statement, which will be made available to you but which I will read for the audio media.

SIMON: It was a Monday morning, and Ron Palmer remembers watching this. There was President Ronald Reagan in the White House Rose Garden, at the podium - gray suit, perfectly pomped (ph) hair.


REAGAN: This morning at 7 a.m., the union representing those who man America's air traffic control facilities called a strike.

MALONE: Reagan was talking about the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union. He was talking about Ron Palmer. Ron was, in fact, an air traffic controller in Miami. His union and the government - they'd been fighting over wages, among other things, and the union decided to strike. Ronald Reagan was on TV to say that he was not happy about this.


REAGAN: It is for this reason that I must tell those who failed to report for duty this morning, they are in violation of the law. And if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated; end of statement.


MALONE: Forty-eight hours to get back to work or Reagan was going to fire every striking air traffic controller in the country - Ron Palmer's namesake was threatening to fire Ron Palmer and virtually all of his colleagues.

PALMER: I was preparing myself for the worst. And by God, I sure got the worst.

SIMON: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Julia Simon.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. Today on the show, we tell the story of arguably the most important strike in recent U.S. history.

SIMON: This strike would change the trajectory of American labor and of Ron Palmer's life.


SIMON: Thirty-eight years later, Ron Palmer lives in a suburb of Atlanta. It's called Cumming, Ga., and that's where I met him.

Hi. It's great to meet you. How are you?

PALMER: I'm good.

SIMON: This is so beautiful.

Ron has a thin pencil mustache. He's 75 years old. And as we walk in and go upstairs, the first thing he shows me...

PALMER: This is my Vietnam memory board.


PALMER: And...

SIMON: When were you in...

PALMER: ...I was - '65, '66.

MALONE: Ron was in the Army - 1st Air Cav Division, 2nd Battalion Airborne. He was a door gunner on a helicopter. And when he came back from Vietnam, he moved to Miami, where his aunt had connections at the Miami airport. And she said, you know what, Ron? They need air traffic controllers over there.

PALMER: And, you know, you've got the skills. Why don't you try, you know, getting in? So I did.

SIMON: The set of skills his aunt was talking about were basically army skills - giving orders with precision and poise in high-stress environments. And this is key because an air traffic controller's job is to tell pilots what to do. Ron walked me through it.

PALMER: Let's say you're in an aircraft, and you're ready for takeoff.

SIMON: Right. I'm the pilot. You're the air traffic controller.

PALMER: Julia, line up and wait. You're going to say...


PALMER: ...Roger.

SIMON: Roger.

PALMER: Line up and wait. Repeat what I say.

SIMON: OK. Roger. Line up and wait.

PALMER: OK. Julia, cleared for takeoff.

SIMON: Roger. Julia is cleared for takeoff.

PALMER: (Laughter) Yeah.


PALMER: OK. So then I would say - after you got airborne and you were flying, I'd go, Julia, turn right heading 1-3-0, vector around traffic.

SIMON: Roger. Julia will descend 1-3-0...

PALMER: Julia, Julia, no, no.


MALONE: Did you crash the plane?

SIMON: I came very close. It was a near miss or a miss.

MALONE: I'm glad you're not my pilot, I'll be honest.

SIMON: I'll never be a pilot. All that's to say it's a very high-pressure job. It's a very high-pressure environment.

PALMER: Our job is to keep everybody from hitting everybody else, really. That's what it boils down to.

SIMON: Because air traffic controllers were so important for public safety and their jobs were so stressful, they got paid more than most government workers. Ron, for example, made $42,000 a year. That's about $120,000 today - good money, but not as much as the pilots made. And this was at the heart of how Ron Palmer and Ronald Reagan ended up on opposite sides of labor history.

MALONE: Back in the 1970s and early '80s, the air traffic controllers started to feel like they should be treated and paid more like pilots. They felt their job was just as important as the pilots, just as stressful, and they were asked to work longer hours. And so they asked their union to fight for a huge raise in the next contract negotiations.

SIMON: So in anticipation of those negotiations, the unions started looking around for potential allies, somebody who might be able to help them get those concessions. And in 1979...


REAGAN: Good evening.

SIMON: A new candidate entered the Republican race for president, and the controllers' union thought they'd found their guy.


REAGAN: I've seen America from the stadium press box as a sportscaster, as an actor, officer of my labor union.

MALONE: That's right - Ronald Reagan, union man. In fact, Reagan had been the president of the Screen Actors Guild. Full disclosure - basically everyone at PLANET MONEY is also a member of SAG. No, we don't act. It's complicated. Don't worry about it. Anyway, as Ronald Reagan, the presidential candidate, went looking around for endorsements, he found the air traffic controllers. Here was a mostly white, mostly male, more conservative union with lots of veterans. This was very much Reagan's demographic. So Reagan sent the air traffic controllers' union a letter, essentially saying, look; if you endorse me, I'm going to be on your side. Pretty much everyone in the union, aka PATCO, was excited about this letter, including Ron Palmer.

SIMON: People in PATCO were very, like, rah, rah, Reagan, Reagan.

PALMER: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I voted for him, yeah.

SIMON: Why'd you vote for him?

PALMER: Because that's - we were all going to support PATCO. And if he's going to support PATCO with that letter, all right. I'm going to vote for him.

MALONE: Of course, Ronald Reagan was elected, and when he gets into the White House, things do not go as Ron Palmer and the union expected. For starters, Reagan hires a bunch of not exactly pro-union guys. Instead, he starts bringing in guys like Donald Devine.

SIMON: So what do you think you're best known for in the Reagan administration?

DONALD DEVINE: I was kind of the bad guy of the Reagan administration.

SIMON: How do you feel about that?

DEVINE: I loved it.

SIMON: (Laughter) Why'd you love it?

DEVINE: I like conflict.


DEVINE: It's fun.

SIMON: (Laughter) Oh, man.

Donald was the head of the Office of Personnel Management - basically HR for the federal government - and part of that job was to direct federal labor policy.

MALONE: And when Donald looked at the air traffic controllers, with their pretty good salaries, asking for bigger salaries, Donald did not have much sympathy.

DEVINE: In my mind, they were already getting too much, and they wanted more.

SIMON: But Donald didn't have the final say here. It came down to the secretary of transportation, who wanted the nation's airports running smoothly. And he was like, why not just meet them halfway? Give them a raise. Keep them happy.

DEVINE: And I fought like heck against it, and I lost.

MALONE: And so the government offered the air traffic controllers what amounted to a 5% raise, which was unprecedented for the federal government - a huge deal.

SIMON: But the union was like, no, no, no. We asked for at least 10% more, and we're serious. And if you're not going to give us what we want, we might just go on strike.

MALONE: A strike from air traffic controllers is a huge threat. They control air traffic. If they walk off the job, this could cripple the American economy.

SIMON: This is also a complicated threat because the air traffic controllers are not allowed to strike. They swore an oath they wouldn't. And also, there's a law making it illegal for federal workers to strike.

MALONE: But for a second, just think this through from the air traffic controllers' perspective. The country is paralyzed without them. The job requires tons of training, and literally, people's lives are at stake. So what was the government really going to do if they went on strike - like, arrest all of the air traffic controllers, fire them all? How would you replace a whole country's worth of skilled controllers? The air traffic controllers decided their union had the leverage. They voted to go on strike.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

SIMON: Which brings us back to Monday morning, August 3, 1981 - day one of the strike.


REAGAN: Ladies and gentlemen, I have a statement which...

SIMON: Ronald Reagan took to the Rose Garden to address the country and those striking union members.


REAGAN: This morning at 7 a.m...

MALONE: Ron Palmer - a guy, you will recall, who was named after and voted for this president - is watching this speech, watching this guy basically tell Ron, I don't care what kind of raise you and your colleagues want. If you don't get your butts in those little air traffic control towers in 48 hours...


REAGAN: They have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.

MALONE: You are all fired.


REAGAN: End of statement.

PALMER: When he made that speech in that Rose Garden, I just felt betrayed, you know? Here we - you told us you were going to take care of the system and take care of us, and you didn't.

SIMON: So this is day one of the strike. And you might imagine that if the group of highly skilled people who are supposed to stop planes from crashing don't show up at work, that would essentially shut down the skies. But the government had a card up its sleeve.

MALONE: See. The Federal Aviation Administration - the people who, you know, make sure planes fly - they'd been watching contract talks between the government and the air traffic controllers deteriorate for months, maybe longer. And they'd been working on a backup plan. The plan was that if the controllers went on strike, maybe there was a way to replace them. If they could just find enough qualified people out in the world to cross picket lines and then climb up into those air traffic control towers, then maybe the planes could keep flying or at least enough planes to show the strikers that they're not so irreplaceable after all. Donald Devine, Reagan's HR guy - he was part of this backup plan.

DEVINE: We had to get more people. We had to steal them from the military controllers.

SIMON: They were putting air traffic control students through accelerated tracks, trying to get them ready.

DEVINE: We had to try to go to people who retired to come back.

MALONE: But even with all this preparation, now that it was actual strike time, Donald knew this might not work. It was August after all. What if - I don't know - there was a hurricane? Or what if something else went wrong?

DEVINE: Even if everything was running perfectly and you had some crazy accident, they would have blamed it on this decision on the strike.

MALONE: The government was nervous. But on Day One of the strike, all these replacement air traffic controllers showed up to work. It wasn't enough to replace everybody. But by the end of the day, nearly half of all scheduled flights had flown; no crashes.


SIMON: Day Two of the strike, America is dancing to this amazing 1980s Morning Edition theme song.


JACKIE JUDD: Good morning. No movement in the air controllers strike that has cut air traffic by almost half at the big airports. The union...

SIMON: And that morning, a seemingly small thing happened that made a huge difference in U.S. labor history.


JUDD: ...Tuesday, August 4. And this is NPR's Morning Edition.

SIMON: The skies are blue; that is the thing. In much of the country, little clouds, great visibility - ideal if you're, say, a replacement air traffic controller suddenly asked to land a bunch of big planes. All of these new controllers that the Reagan administration put on the job didn't have as much trouble giving commands to pilots when those pilots could see everything.


JUDD: The news is next.

CARL KASELL: Good morning. I'm Carl Kasell. According to Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, the number of commercial airline flights has increased this morning from yesterday's 50% of normal to 75%.

MALONE: So that was one thing working against the air traffic controller union's close-down-the-sky strategy. The other thing was Reagan's threat from the Rose Garden podium.


KASELL: Lewis repeated President Reagan's promise to fire those controllers who do not return to work by tomorrow.

MALONE: Remember. Reagan didn't say, you're all fired starting now. He said, show up to work in the next 48 hours or you're fired. He was giving air traffic controllers who needed their jobs an option. Or from the perspective of the union's president who spoke on NPR that day, Reagan was trying to break the strike.


ROBERT E POLI: They're trying to break the union. I think they are trying to use every intimidation factor that they can to get the controllers to go back to work. I certainly do believe that they're trying to break our union.

SIMON: Reagan's threat and his 48-hour amnesty were scary to people like Ron Palmer, who were trying to hold steady.

PALMER: One guy at Miami, he walked the picket line the first day with a picket sign and got his picture in the front page of the Miami Herald, you know? And then he went back to work the following day. You know, like, oh, my gosh, that didn't help, you know? That didn't help.

SIMON: As the 48-hour deadline came to a close, striking controllers around the country gathered together with their families. Ron was at the union hall in Miami.

PALMER: We were solidarity. You know, it's - we were trying to be solid. We were singing. I got up and sang a couple of songs.

SIMON: What'd you sing?

PALMER: (Singing) Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

MALONE: That moment the deadline passed, Ron and over 11,000 air traffic controllers who stayed on strike were officially fired.

SIMON: Not only had Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, he banned them from working as air traffic controllers for life.

When do things start getting real?

PALMER: Well, when the paycheck stops, you know, things start really getting real. You're not scared anymore. You just have to get out and do whatever you have to do to provide a living for you and your family.

MALONE: And these controllers weren't left with a lot of options. They couldn't do their job in this country, so some of them went overseas, worked as air traffic controllers in Europe. Some went to Canada. Others, like Ron, stayed and tried to do something else. He landed, first, at a car dealership. Then he drove buses. He eventually did get a job for the state government in Florida.

PALMER: It was the unemployment (laughter) - it was an unemployment facility.




And for about a decade, this was the life of the striking air traffic controllers. Some of them never recovered. Then, about a decade after the strike, President Bill Clinton lifted Reagan's ban on air traffic controllers getting their jobs back. In fact, Ron finally got his job back.

MALONE: And in one final Ron-Palmer, Ron-Reagan intersection, the same year Ron Palmer got his job back, Congress proposed to name Washington, D.C., airport Reagan National. Air traffic controllers strongly opposed this, as you might imagine. It didn't matter. The name passed.

SIMON: After the break - why some call this the most disastrous strike in American history.


SIMON: Donald Devine, the head of federal employees for Reagan, told me that not long after the strike, this thing started happening.

DEVINE: Businessmen would come up to me and say, you know, when your guy, Reagan, stood firm with those guys, I started getting tougher with my unions, too; I realized I was giving away the store. And I don't know how many times that happened, you know, maybe only half a dozen, but seemed like a lot. Let's say, you know, he did that; I realized I should, too.

SIMON: What had happened in that moment of the strike was that Reagan flipped the narrative on strikebreaking. Strikers were no longer the sympathetic ones. Now they were selfish lawbreakers screwing over regular Americans.

MALONE: Reagan, on the other hand, he managed to cast himself as, like, the hero here, as the defender of the American public. He was able to convince a good chunk of the American public that strikebreaking was, in fact, something patriotic. And at the time, America seemed to be on his side.

SIMON: Joseph McCartin is a labor historian at Georgetown - wrote the book about the air-traffic controller strike. He said Reagan's handling of the strike got into business school curricula - like, quickly, within a year.

JOSEPH MCCARTIN: By 1982, there was a group at the Wharton School that came out with a manual which encouraged business leaders to learn from the PATCO strike. So this was widely disseminated, and business leaders were reading about it.

SIMON: Was this manual, like, what to do, what we learned from the PATCO strike, basically?

MCCARTIN: Yeah. Yeah, basically. If you wanted to be a great chief executive, take on your union and fight them.

MALONE: After Reagan fired all of the striking air-traffic controllers, suddenly around America, strikebreaking became the thing to do. Striking copper miners in Arizona - fired. Striking paper workers in Maine - fired. Meatpackers, bus drivers - so many strikes in the 1980s were broken to the point where unions realized that employers wanted them to strike so that they could fire them and replace them with nonunion workers. And if you realize that your boss wants you to strike so they can fire you and rehire somebody else, that is going to make you less likely to strike, the main piece of leverage unions have.

SIMON: The government keeps track of the number of strikes. And if you look at the numbers, you see a lot of strikes right after World War II, when unions were flying high, and the numbers trend downward slowly. But suddenly, in 1982, there's this huge drop-off. That drop-off, that is the air-traffic controller strike.

MALONE: And even with the recent uptick in strikes you may have read about in the news - teacher strikes, health care workers - the number of strikes today is still small compared to before the air-traffic controllers. Strikes have dropped from about 140 a year in 1981 to about 10 to 20 a year today. Some people call this the PATCO syndrome, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers syndrome. This is the union fear of striking and then ending up summarily fired, like Reagan did to the air-traffic controllers. Here again is retired controller Ron Palmer.

PALMER: I think Reagan lowered his heel. When he lowered his heel on PATCO, everybody in the United States that was a member of a union took a long, hard look at what happened to us. I am - from what I'm...

SIMON: And basically said, they got squashed.

PALMER: Yeah, we - Yeah. Yeah. And we better be careful here.

SIMON: I guess I should ask, you know, looking back now, was it worth it?

PALMER: Probably not. Yeah. You know, and if I said anything different, nobody would believe me. So probably not, but...

SIMON: Well, why do you feel that way?

PALMER: The damage we did to everybody else (laughter), you know. It wasn't the damage that we did to everybody else; it was the damage that Ronald Reagan did to us that extended to everyone else.

SIMON: So if you had known what you know today, would you have done anything different?

PALMER: I'd love to be a time traveler. I'd love to be one. I could go back and fix a whole bunch of stuff.


MALONE: If you've got a story about a moment that changed the world, I mean, we'd love to hear about that. You can email us. We are planetmoney@npr.org. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. We are, generally, at @planetmoney.

SIMON: Thanks to Ken Moffett, historians Erik Loomis and Joseph McCartin. His book about the strike is called "Collision Course." Also, thanks to Katie Daugert and biggest thanks to John Laden (ph).

MALONE: Today's episode was produced by Nick Fountain. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Bryant Urstadt edits our show.

I'm Kenny Malone.

SIMON: And I'm Julia Simon.

MALONE: This is NPR.

SIMON: Thanks for listening.


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