All of us in the labor movement are—hopefully—scrambling to figure out how to construct defenses and get positioned to deal with the rapidly deteriorating bargaining climate. Every employer is either on the attack or soon will be.
The COVID-19 pandemic is giving every employer the opportunity to force concessions on their workforces. Everything is on the table, whether we want to believe it or not. We can be certain that the unorganized will be robbed wholesale; it’s going to be a horror show for those with no union brake on their employer. In labor’s ranks we have much work to do to prepare for the onslaught.
In a recent union meeting I offered a few thoughts about what it was like to live through the 1980s—and have to deal with every company and every government jurisdiction looking to strip labor of everything that had been won over 50 years.
The era of concession “bargaining” quickly accelerated and swamped the labor movement under the late 1970s regime of Jimmy Carter. Carter was then promptly washed away by the far worse Ronald Reagan, elected in November 1980. What followed was a systematic process by which every union in every industry was subjected to massive attacks all throughout the 1980s.
Local and pattern union agreements that took decades to negotiate in industry after industry were gutted or destroyed in just a few years. Every wage package, working condition, pension plan, and health care benefit was threatened, destroyed, or at minimum squeezed beyond recognition. (All this is detailed in Jane Slaughter’s 1983 book Concessions and How to Beat Them on the Labor Notes website.)
Union contracts in airlines, agricultural implements, aluminum, auto assembly, cans, chemicals, clothing and garment, construction, electrical manufacturing, glass, grocery, meatpacking, media, mining, paper, public sector, rail, refining, rubber, shipbuilding, shoes, steel, telecommunications, tool and die, trucking, and warehousing were all devastated or even obliterated during the decade.
During our meeting the PATCO debacle inevitably came up. In August 1981 President Reagan fired the 13,000 strikers of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, who had struck against his take-it-or-leave-it bargaining tactics.
A largely forgotten facet of this scandalous event was that aiding and abetting the Reagan landslide in 1980 had been several unions that wholeheartedly embraced him and endorsed him for election. The National Maritime Union, Teamsters, East Coast Longshore (ILA), Hotel Workers, Air Line Pilots, and others in the maritime and construction trades supported and even funded Reagan.
Right in the middle of the pro-Reagan labor leadership lovefest were the air traffic controllers, who backed his campaign. PATCO was an affiliate of the Marine Engineers (MEBA, AFL-CIO) and ended up being the perfect target for Reagan. Few of the airline or transportation unions supported or even liked PATCO, as we found out at the airport picket lines during the bitter strike. Some felt that PATCO deserved what they got for supporting Reagan.
The air traffic controllers learned a bitter lesson, and a floodgate of attacks opened on the entire labor movement. The employer attacks were coming no matter what, but Reagan used PATCO to send an emboldening message to employers everywhere.
By 1982 PATCO was completely destroyed and organized labor was marched down the concessionary road which has left us halved in size and wrecked at the bargaining table. Forty years after PATCO we are still reeling.
During the 1980s the Reagan juggernaut was so feared that any number of unions surrendered to Reagan again in his 1984 re-election campaign: the Teamsters, the ILA, the Hotel Workers, the Laborers. Several did so on the most opportunistic grounds: an attempt to curry favor in the hope of avoiding federal takeover because of their endemic mob control.
One of the most farcical examples of labor’s attempts to somehow win favor with Reagan’s presidency was an organizing flyer, used by a number of unions, that said “Ronald Reagan is a union man.” They aimed to recruit members by associating themselves with Reagan’s presidency of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The flyer said, “If [a union’s] good enough for the president of the United States, isn’t it good enough for you?” It was produced after Reagan’s even bigger landslide 1984 re-election versus the hapless Democrat Walter Mondale.
I was briefly a Food and Commercial Workers member, and I remember being handed a copy of this flyer in the union office in Schenectady, New York. The union organizer waited for my reaction and for at least 10 minutes I thought that it was a crank flyer. He assured me that it was real.
This flyer was a symbol of everything that was failed about labor’s approach to both Reagan and the concessions attack, so I have kept it all these years as a reminder to be vigilant against any repeat.
As we approach November, union after union now grapples with the significant support for Trump that exists within most unions. Beyond being a perennial embarrassment, opinion polls of union members reveal over and over again the problem of millions of members embracing our political enemies. How do we recognize this and challenge it effectively? Some crash courses in labor education, history, and principles might be a start. Election after election we are stuck with significant chunks of members who make self-destructive choices at the ballot box, but few unions then devise long-term means to hit this head-on.
As we move toward the coming election and face the building concessionary attacks, this is a cautionary tale about desperation, corruption, ignorance, fear, and cheap opportunism by some in our movement. It is a flashback that the only way to oppose concessions is to oppose concessions—and all who embrace them, push them, or surrender to them.
Chris Townsend is the Director of New Organizing at the Amalgamated Transit Union.