Thirty years ago today, President Ronald Reagan threatened to fire almost 13,000 air traffic controllers unless they called off their strike and returned to work. He then followed through on his threat, firing most of the workers — represented by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (Patco) — and banning them from the federal workforce for life. Today’s GOP is celebrating by holding another group of airline industry workers hostage over the party’s radical anti-union stance.
Republican demands that a measure making it harder for workers to unionize be attached to the re-authorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has led to the agency’s shutdown, costing the government more than $200 million a week, leaving 4,000 FAA employees and 70,000 construction workers out of work, and forcing airline inspectors to work without pay. And because Congress is now in recess until September, the shutdown is almost assured to last at least another month.
The FAA shutdown is the latest GOP effort to weaken unions at the federal and state level. And while Reagan broke Patco, a move that had many damaging and long-lasting effects on the American labor movement, today’s Republicans are going much further, according to Joseph A. McCartin’s editorial in today’s New York Times:
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Over time the rightward-shifting Republican Party has come to view Reagan’s mass firings not as a focused effort to stop one union from breaking the law — as Reagan portrayed it — but rather as a blow against public sector unionism itself.
As McCartin points out, Reagan did not oppose public or private workers’ right to organize or collectively bargain, only the ability of public workers to strike. Reagan himself was a former union leader and led the 1960 strike of the Screen Actors’ Guild.
The GOP’s attempts to further weaken the labor movement, meanwhile, come at a time when union membership continues to shrink, thanks in large part to Reagan’s 1981 effort and Republican policies of the last 30 years. And the moves come at a time when American workers could benefit the most from robust unions.
Union members make more than comparable non-union workers, and a recent study tied declining union participation to rising levels of income inequality. Other studies show that returning to 1980 union membership levels would add more than $1,500 to the income of the average middle-class American worker.
Republicans still insist that they care about workers and ending America’s job crisis. Unfortunately, by standing up for airline companies and against the 74,000 people they have put out of work, their actions continue to tell a different story.