"Strike, Strike, Strike,” went the chant that continued for several minutes before erupting into cheering and stomping feet.
The noise coming from the hundreds of union activists in the ballroom of the Chicago airport hotel might have sounded like an eerie echo from the radical 1930s. Yet this was 1981, and the workers were not trucking Teamsters but air traffic controllers.
The members of Patco, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation, were unlikely “militants”— it was even technically illegal for this type of public employees to strike.
And, controllers had white collar government jobs with pay far higher than many.
They were overwhelmingly white and male, and regarded themselves as middle class.
They lived in the suburbs and most had come into this service having served in the military—usually in Vietnam.
But in successive union negotiations in the 1970s controllers found their status slipping as recession started to grip.
Their pay was going down as inflation rose. At the same time their stress levels were at an all-time high as the amount of air traffic increased.
All manner of petty injustices fed their indignation, from losing their right to free air travel, to the way supervisors freely chastised them. They were also forced to endure regular psychological tests.
Newly introduced technology only seemed to make matters worse.
Alarms would constantly ring to warn of an impending collision even when none were likely but would fail to alert controllers to any real danger.
And, there was the impact on workers’ mental health. Any mistaken instruction could result in a mid-air crash with the loss of hundreds of lives.
Many workers were forced to retire early due to stress, but now the bosses were trying to take that right away.
Tensions had been building throughout the decade and by the late 1970s a small group of union militants made it their business to start organising among them. A secretive rank and file group of younger controllers, who called themselves the Choirboys, began agitating for a strike.
Inspired by a wave of successful teachers’ strikes, they were soon confident enough to call openly for a strike over pay.
If the union could convince 80 percent of the controllers to strike all air traffic in the US could be stopped, they said.
This could mean that the union’s demands for better pay, shorter hours and restored benefits could be won.
By the end of 1979 the Choirboys had raised the share of Patco members who said they’d respect a picket line to 69 percent, while 90 percent of those under 30 said they were willing to strike. In 1981, 95.3 percent of Patco members voted to reject the employers’ new contract and in effect voted for strikes.
By 3 August they were on the picket line of an illegal strike, and defiant—something captured well in Joseph McCartin’s book, Collision Course.
In one passage he recalls the partner of a striker telling her children that, “Daddy may have to go to jail.” If he did, they should not “be ashamed,” she said.
Instead they should “be very proud of him” because he was there for “a great cause”.
The union was determined but so were the bosses. In the period running up to the strike the Federal Aviation Administration was preparing furiously.
First, it struck an agreement with major airlines to drastically reduce the number of flights in the event of a strike.
Second, it retrained all supervisors so that they could do air traffic control work if necessary.
Third, it enlisted the military and got agreement for hundreds of airforce controllers to work in civilian transport.
Lastly, it planned for mass recruitment and training of new staff at breakneck speed.
The plan was so well regarded that the newly elected Republican president, Ronald Reagan, made a speech from the White House. He declared it was illegal for air traffic controllers to strike.
If they didn’t return to work within 48 hours, he went on, he’d order them all sacked.
The union held up well despite the threat, with as many as 90 percent of controllers out in some areas.
But the bosses’ contingency plan was far more effective than the union had bargained for and planes continued to fly.
All other unions should have backed the controllers after Reagan had made his ultimatum—everyone knew this threat tactic would spread.
Had either the pilots’ union or the International Association of Machinists, whose members maintained aircraft, refused to work during the strike Reagan would have been busted.
But the leaders of both offered nothing more than warm words.
On 5 August, knowing that Patco was completely isolated, the president carried out his threat. The federal government began firing all 11,159 air traffic controllers who had not already returned to work.
In addition, he declared a life-time ban on rehiring any of the strikers.
The controllers had been crushed, and most union leaders drew only the most pessimistic lessons from their failure.
Instead of recognising they should have backed the controllers’, they said the defeat proved it was dangerous and pointless to strike.
The failure of the strike led to a “new era” of industrial relations where union leaders believed that “cooperation” with the bosses was the way to maintain good jobs.
In the years that followed wages and jobs went into freefall while the union leaders sat on their hands.
Workers won’t let the US labour movement die
There have recently been outbursts of workers’ anger among older sections of the union movement in the US as well as newly organised groups.
Official figures from the Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) show a significant increase in strikes in 2018 and 2019.
As many as 485,000 workers were involved in major walkouts in 2018.
The rise was driven by a series of teachers’ strikes in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
They were among many white collar workers, who saw themselves as “middle class”, but had been hammered by free market reforms.
As one union organiser, Noah Kartvelis, said, “They’ve realised that they’re exploited and that they have structural power.”
But 2018 also showed the potential for some of the lowest paid, most precarious workers to organise.
Almost 6,000 Marriott Hotel workers in eight cities across the US refused to go work.
In some of the hotels, workers made as little as £2 an hour. Their indefinite strike won higher wages and workplace rights from the multinational.
But were 2018 and 2019 just a blip in a long-term decline?
The BLS figures show a decrease in the number of strikes from 2020 onwards.
But the number of strikes could actually be higher than measured as BSL only counts strikes of more than 1,000 workers.
The Labour Notes website found there were 28 strikes this April alone.
Strikes that the BSL ignored include an ongoing battle by 800 nurses in Massachusetts.
Of course, no matter how the strike figures are calculated, it’s nowhere near the high points of the 1970s. And there have been setbacks.
A high-profile attempt to win union recognition at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama failed in April.
In order to defeat the drive the bosses had to resort to all manner of dirty tactics. So it’s not simply further evidence of the death of US organised labour.
There new battles on the horizon, and the thirst for action among the lowest paid continues to grow.