PATCO Workers on Strike

25 Years After the PATCO Strike – August 3rd, 1981

On this day 25 years ago, 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization walked off the job, demanding higher pay and a reduction of the working week. 48 hours later, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 of them, using military personnel as scabs. This date marks a bitter defeat in the history of the American trade unions and for working people in general.

PATCO on Strike

A quarter-century after this defeat the Labor Movement finds itself no better off than in 1981. Real wages, wages tied to the rate of inflation, have not risen but rather have declined since 1975. 44 million Americans are without health care. The breaking of the PATCO strike by the Reagan government paved the way for an upswing in the profits of the biggest US corporations at the expense of the US working class.

When the AFL-CIO merger occurred in 1955, it was the world's largest union with 15 million members. Today, the AFL-CIO has been reduced to 6 million members, with little representation in the private sector. From 1950 to 1980, there was an average of 300 major work stoppages per year. But between 1981 and 200 there was only an average of 46 strikes per year. Instead of mounting a united defense of the PATCO strikers, the AFL-CIO allowed itself to be intimidated by the power of the bosses and their government. Labor-Management "cooperation" was offered instead of struggle. Today's generation of workers is still paying the price for this one-way "cooperation."

But the PATCO defeat is not the end of the story. History has not "ended." In the last few months we have witnessed a number of important struggles and movements of the rank and file, largely unprecedented in the 25 years since the demoralizing and crushing defeat of the PATCO strike. Foremost among these have been the New York transit strike and the rank and file of the UAW, the Soldiers of Solidarity. The movement towards a renewal of Labor struggle is gathering momentum, not stagnating.

On this bitter anniversary, Socialist Appeal would like to re-produce the section from US Perspectives 2006 on the Labor Movement. The ideas of genuine Marxism are not an abstract academic concept. These ideas are a tool for the workers and youth of today to map out the road ahead, based on a scientific understanding of the world economy and society, and enriched with the lessons of the past. The bitter memory of the PATCO defeat is one of these lessons that we must learn from in order to win the future.

The pendulum of the class struggle, which has been swinging mercilessly against working people for the past twenty-five years, is starting to swing the other way, with the beginnings of a fight back by the working class. The period we have entered may well be far more similar to the turbulent 1930s than the relatively stable post-war period. It is important to keep this in mind when analyzing the processes developing within U.S. society. A sharpening of the class struggle in the United States is on the order of the day, and this will be increasingly expressed through the trade unions and the Labor Movement in general.  

Over the past year there has been a changing mood within the Labor Movement. This is a reflection of the shift to the left taking place internationally, which is itself the result of the crisis of capitalism and the vicious attacks on working people around the world.  The pace and intensity of events is accelerating in one country after another. After nearly three decades of a bosses’ offensive against the working class, of betrayals by the trade union leadership, as well as a general fall in wages and living conditions, the rank and file of the Labor Movement is showing the first signs of a serious reawakening. The reaction against decades of class collaboration and business unionism is steadily gaining momentum.  

In the last few months we have witnessed a number of important struggles and movements of the rank and file, largely unprecedented in the 25 years since the demoralizing and crushing defeat of the PATCO strike. Foremost among these have been the New York transit strike and the rank and file movement issuing out of the UAW, the Soldiers of Solidarity.  

The New York Transit strike was an opening shot in this process. The strike involved 33,000 workers and brought the nation’s largest transit system to a halt (TWU workers move 7 million people around the NY metro area every day). This was the first strike of NY TWU since 1980, when they struck for 11 days. Pay, health, and retirement benefits were the main points of contention. The attacks by the municipal administration of billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg against the TWU were meant as a battering ram against the entire labor movement. Declaring it an “illegal” strike, the authorities threatened stiff fines, court actions, and layoffs. They aimed at nothing less than invalidating the unions’ fundamental right to bargain collectively. 

In the face of these threats, the rank and file transit workers refused to be cowed and went on strike anyway. But despite the solid strike action and a decent measure of support from the public, the International leadership of the TWU intervened and put heavy pressure on the local leadership to call off the strike and return to negotiations with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. This 11th 
hour betrayal by the “leadership” undermined what could have been an important victory. Nonetheless, the TWU strike shows the discontent and fighting spirit that is growing within the rank and file of the labor movement. It also highlights the bitter character of industrial disputes in the next period, as the bosses and the state mobilize their entire might to defeat the workers. But given a far-sighted, incorruptible, and accountable rank and file leadership, the potential for big victories of the labor movement is in the cards in the coming period.

In this regard, the Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS) movement is of particular importance. The SOS offers a first glimpse of the militant and democratic organizing capacity of the rank and file, and shows how a real struggle for workers’ rights can be waged starting at the shop floor. It shows that we don’t have to wait to be sold-out by our union “leaders”, and points the way forward to industrial and class-wide unity against the attacks being suffered by all working people – at home and abroad.  

The SOS movement first emerged as a rank and file mobilization of Delphi workers who oppose the company’s tactic of using bankruptcy proceedings to invalidate the union’s contract and pensions. They also oppose the official union leadership’s unfortunate policy of collaborating with the bosses instead of defending their members’ interests. While the struggle at Delphi against plant closures, layoffs, and drastic cuts in wages and benefits remains the movement’s main point of attack, the SOS has made a class-wide appeal that has begun to get an echo not just in the UAW, but throughout the entire Labor Movement. This has important implications for the class struggle in the coming period.  

The conservative inertia of collaboration with the bosses that has been the primary feature of the trade unions for the past 25 years is starting to come under the pressure of the rank and file. Put simply, the rank and file is starting to stand up and say, “No more concessions! Enough is enough!” By basing itself on the rank and file and demanding militant and democratic action starting at the point of production, the SOS are an important element in the reinvigoration of the trade unions from below. The fighting outlook of the SOS is summed up by Gregg Shotwell, one of their most active members, as follows: “Workers’ Rights are not defined by Law or Contract.  Workers’ Rights are defined by Struggle.  You will Win what you are willing to Fight for.  Nothing more, nothing less.” 

At present, the SOS itself is a relatively amorphous and loosely-knit body based mostly within the UAW locals representing Delphi workers. There are also “sister” movements across the UAW, which although not going by the name Soldiers of Solidarity, represent the same movement for rank and file democracy and militancy. SOS supporters have emerged in other unions as well, and on the basis of events, this growing ferment could spread quickly. The slogan “Every Worker a Soldier of Solidarity!” has the potential to unite all honest rank and file militants throughout the labor movement. All workers should solidarize themselves with Soldiers of Solidarity: what happens at Delphi will set the tone for the labor movement for years to come. An injury to one is an injury to all! 

For decades, the union bureaucracy has stifled the internal atmosphere and pursued a policy of business unionism almost unopposed. The history of the U.S. Labor Movement over the last half-century has been a sorry litany of incremental concessions and the erosion of the power of the trade unions. In times of industrial “peace”, the working class tends to empty out of its mass organizations and leave the business of defending their interests to the leadership. During periods like this, a bureaucratic layer forms at the top of the movement, which has a choking effect on the movement as a whole. This is exactly what happened within the AFL-CIO during the 1950s, and the bureaucracy has continued to control and stifle the trade unions to this day.  

This is a result of the policy of  “Labor-Management Partnership”, which extends to the political arena as well. When faced with increasingly aggressive employers, those that should be defending our interests and rights against the diametrically opposed interests of the bosses instead offer “cooperation”. Many of these people seem to be more interested in keeping their perks and privileges than in fighting for the working class. If these career bureaucrats had the interests of the rank and file at heart, the AFL-CIO today would not be faced with a steep decline and a split. 

The recent break up of the AFL-CIO came as a shock to many trade unionists and activists. Over one third of the federation’s 13 million members left. The Teamsters and SEIU alone accounted for more than $20 million of the AFL-CIO’s estimated $120 million annual budget. First and foremost, the split is a reflection of the crisis facing the Labor Movement. Since Sweeney’s election in 1995 the AFL-CIO has presided over a net loss of over 800,000 members. The policies of Sweeney and co. have already led to disaster, and could eventually lead the AFL-CIO into oblivion. However the solution cannot come from a permanent and bureaucratic split of the movement. The working class needs maximum unity to take on the bosses.  It is positive that at the rank and file level, many trade unionists from the rival federations continue to work together closely. 

The split was not the result of a mass upsurge of working class organization and militancy, nor the result of a mass rank and file movement towards political class independence and the formation of a political party by and for working people. On the contrary, it was chiefly organized by a handful of union careerists with little or no organization-wide discussion, nor any perspective of increased democratic participation by the millions of rank and filers that make up the unions. The new formation offers no new political perspective and does not reject supporting the Democratic Party.  

It is understandable and healthy that millions of trade union members are frustrated by the long decline in membership, and want more energy and resources poured into organizing. But this vital work cannot be entrusted to this or that bureaucratic clique. We need an honest, democratically-elected and accountable leadership at the head of the movement that is ready and willing to fight in the interests of the working class. The militant rank and file of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win must fight to clean out the self-interested and careerist mis-leadership currently dominating the movement.  This is the only way forward. 

Starting with the Meaney leadership, the AFL-CIO bureaucracy’s right-wing, which remains its dominant wing, has maintained close ties to not only both of the bosses’ political parties but with the highest levels of the Federal government as well, notably the State Department and the CIA. But now the rank and file is starting to return to an active role in the affairs of their own mass organizations. History shows again and again that when the masses begin to move into action, they turn first towards their traditional mass organizations: the trade unions and the mass workers’ parties. 

In the absence of a mass party of labor, and despite the severe short-comings of the trade unions at the present time, many workers are seeking to reclaim them as fighting organs for defending their rights, wages, and conditions. With the rise of the SOS, we can see the beginning of this process in the United States. It is important to stress that while this process is still in its earliest stages, it can accelerate quickly on the basis of events, and can and must develop a political expression as well. 

Economic struggles are of tremendous importance, but the struggle must also be taken to the political plane.  So long as the courts and laws are controlled and written by the billionaires, working people will be unable to fight back effectively.  The need to break with the Democrats and to build a mass party truly by and for working people has never been greater.  This idea is getting an increasing echo among many working people, who can see that there is no fundamental difference between the two billionaire’s parties.  While the AFL-CIO leadership loudly criticized NAFTA as an attack against the workers of North America, they continued to give millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers to the party responsible for this attack, the Democrats.  

Rising interest in an electoral outlet for working people can be seen in South Carolina, where the Labor Party (LP), which seemed doomed to wither on the vine – in part for lack of participation in the electoral process – is fighting to get on the ballot, and is receiving support from across the country.  So far, over 10,000 South Carolinians have signed a petition to get the LP on the ballot with the full support of the state AFL-CIO. This in a traditionally anti-union state. While it is impossible at this stage to say what kind of results they will get in SC, or what kind of effect this will have on national politics, this is an important indicator of the mood in society.  It is a development we must follow closely and encourage. As the pace of events accelerates and the trade union leadership is put under the pressure of the rank and file we can only expect more developments of this sort.  

The struggles of Venezuelan workers offer important lessons for rank and file labor militants in the U.S. The genesis and formation of the National Union of Workers (UNT), a democratic and class-based trade union formation, out of the ashes of the corrupt, bureaucratic, and anti-democratic Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) is of particular interest. The movement of factory occupations and workers’ control also offers important lessons. Under the slogan of “Factory Closed, Factory Taken” several important bankrupt firms in Venezuela have been nationalized and turned over to “cogestion obrera” (workers’ co-management and control). These nationalizations only took place after long and bitter struggles and occupations by the workers themselves. Implicit in the SOS call to “Work to Rule” is the vital question: “who actually runs the factories?” We should not forget that the sit down strike, a form of factory occupation, was invented in the United States and by the autoworkers no less. 

Capitalism can no longer play a progressive role in developing the means of production.  Cuts, layoffs, and closures are the way the capitalists make profits now, not investment.  The bosses’ tactic of using the bankruptcy courts to throw out union contracts and company pension plans is part of an all-out effort to smash the power of the unions and drive wages down to the lowest possible level.  The airline and auto industries in particular have come under this kind of attack, which pits the workers against not only the boss, but also against the government and their own trade union leadership.  

In the past the capitalists were able to buy off important layers of workers by giving them bigger crumbs than the rest of the class.  But now, even these formerly privileged sectors are under attack, and in most cases, the trade union leadership is nowhere to be seen, as they are guided by the principle of collaborating with the bosses at the expense of the membership. The consistent betrayals of the official leadership cannot be considered as subjective phenomenon, particular to this or that leader or wing of the movement. The class collaborationism of Sweeney, Hoffa and Stern are not unique peculiarities or personality traits. Rather, it is as an objective feature of trade unionism in the epoch of capitalist decay.   

Only a conscious and organized rank and file movement to rid the unions of these mis-leaders can turn the unions back into fighting organizations that defend the interests of working people against the bosses. In the final analysis what is needed in order to reverse the long decline of trade unionism in the U.S. is for the unions to engage in a real fight for improvements for the membership, and then actually win this fight. 

Developments in the labor movement over the past year are an indication of what is to come as the class struggle intensifies in the U.S.  The colossal task of fighting not only the bosses but also the government and the trade union mis-leaders will require tremendous amounts of energy – revolutionary energy. The movement against the bosses’ attacks, for the democratization of the trade unions, for a mass party of labor, will inevitably run against the limitations of the capitalist system.   

Even in the wealthiest country on earth, there is no solution within the bounds of capitalism’s market economy and the nation state.  Only an internationalist struggle for socialism can take the American working class, and with it, the whole of humanity, out of this blind alley. In every country on earth, working people must unite against the attacks of our common enemy: the exploiters that live off of our ability to labor.  Millions of immigrant workers, many under threat of deportation for standing up for their rights, are showing the way forward.

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