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Is Scott Walker Taking Union-Busting Cues from Ronald Reagan?


President Reagan with William French Smith making a statement to the press regarding the air traffic controllers strike from the Rose Garden.

CREDIT: White House Photo Office

The most important event in recent American labor history is President Ronald Reagan’s firing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981.

That year air traffic controllers went on strike for better working conditions, better pay, and a reduced-hour work week. But Reagan immediately ordered the controllers back to work, claiming their jobs were essential to national safety and that the strike was illegal. When they refused, Reagan fired all of them.

The event is widely acknowledged as the point at which America opened the floodgates to the modern wave of union busting, increased inequality, and all-around squeezing of the American worker over the past three decades. Suddenly, union busting was sanctioned by the president himself, and companies soon followed his lead. PATCO, many labor and economic observers agree, has hurt all workers, union or not.

What is currently transpiring in Madison, Wisc., is just as important of an event in American labor history as PATCO was. As goes Wisconsin and its governor’s “Budget Repair Bill,” so goes the rest of working America.

Newly-elected Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) bill is an ostensible response to the state’s budget crisis; it entails a series of huge cuts to public employee pay and government contributions to pensions and health care. Unions, for their part, have repeatedly made clear that they are willing to accept these concessions, painful though they will be. There is one demand, however, they won’t accept: under Walker’s bill, the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers in the state will suddenly vanish into thin air.

Not only will teachers, prison guards, social workers, and sanitation workers be unable to negotiate their wages and benefits as a group—they won’t have a collective say in any part of their work days.

Nurses could lose time off between shifts, potentially raising the probability of committing life-threatening errors because of fatigue. Teachers could lose their planning hours and be forced to teach more classes and take on more work.

Social workers could be given such massive caseloads that they are unable to adequately address clients’ needs, much less have a relationship with them. Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, the Walker bill would end any semblance of workers’ rights.

Though the bill only targets public sector workers, and only those in Wisconsin, citizens of all types—workers and the unemployed, white collar and blue collar, public and private sector, students and teachers—have hit the streets of Madison and occupied the capitol since early last week because they know what’s at stake.

Some groups were excluded from the bill but have had a heavy presence in the streets of Madison this week: Firefighters, police officers, and private sector union workers all aren’t targeted by the bill but oppose Walker’s bill. They seem to sense that though they may have been spared from Walker’s opening anti-union shot, more are sure to follow.

The accuracy of their prediction can be tested by looking back at Reagan’s anti-union move. The PATCO firings directly affected only public employees at first, but they put private companies on notice to take on private sector unions and roll back decades of hard-fought gains in wages, benefits, and conditions. Since then, the political right has successfully painted unions as enemies of democracy and American capitalism, a massive union-busting industry has come into being, and union membership has fallen dramatically.

 In a recently recorded prank call (in which a blogger convinced Gov. Walker that he was billionaire David Koch), Walker candidly spoke of his desire to create his own PATCO moment in Wisconsin:

Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan … had one of the most defining moments of his political career when he fired the air traffic controllers… That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism… This is our moment. This is our time to change the course of history.

PATCO’s impact on working people in the United States can still be felt in workplaces across the country—it’s one of the reasons inequality has skyrocketed in the last three decades. Walker’s bill has its roots in Reagan’s mass firing, but it takes things a step further. PATCO served as a dog whistle to corporations and other anti-union interests that they could not only attack unions and get away with it, but that they had the implicit blessing of the president.

Walker’s bill, on the other hand, does not simply give a nod and wink to forces that oppose workers. It directly empowers by gutting the only check on employer power that workers have, unions. Walker has begun this fight by targeting the much-vilified public sector workers and unions, but the attack will soon spread to all workers.

If Walker’s bill passes in Wisconsin, other states across the country will have the green light to unleash a barrage of anti-worker measures that will exacerbate our country’s ever-widening inequality. Working America will continue its downward spiral to destitution at a breakneck pace the corporate beneficiaries of PATCO could have only dreamed of. Meanwhile, corporations and the rich, unencumbered by workers’ concerns and unchecked by any legal protections for workers, will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht.

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