Chimps, Chumps, and Air Traffic Controllers
Georgetown University professor Joseph McCartin has a book coming out in October about the enduring significance of the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) strike. McCartin, a historian of the labor movement, also parlayed his expertise on that subject into an op-ed for the New York Times. In the essay and the book, McCartin contends that Ronald Reagan's toughness with PATCO thirty years ago transformed his presidency and helped to shape the modern workplace.
Not having seen galleys for the book, I cannot address the full scope of whatever McCartin has written there, but his August 2 essay for the Times was interesting in its own right. Editors called the piece a look at "The Strike That Busted Unions." Oddly -- and this may be an occupational hazard for anyone sympathetic to progressive causes -- McCartin emphasized not "union-busting" per se, but the rhetoric that led to it as a defining moment of the Reagan presidency. That a B-movie actor who played opposite a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo refused to be intimidated by striking air traffic controllers is more surprising to some analysts than that the same guy, in the Oval Office, made good on his threat to fire those controllers.
We know McCartin leans left because he writes in an aside that "the root of our economic troubles is the continuing stagnation of incomes despite rising corporate profits." Although he apparently excuses federal spending and a conspicuous lack of private-sector experience in the upper levels of government as other possible causes of economic trouble, he tries to be fair to Reagan. McCartin admits that Reagan took a big risk in firing the air traffic controllers and dissolving their union. He also points out that "although there were 39 illegal work stoppages against the federal government between 1962 and 1981, no significant federal job actions followed Reagan's firing of the PATCO strikers." Elsewhere on the upside, McCartin notes that Reagan's forceful handling of the PATCO walkout "impressed the Soviets, strengthening his hand in the talks he later pursued with Mikhail S. Gorbachev."
It's when he considers the negative aspects of Reagan's dustup with PATCO that McCartin has me puzzled. Rather than understand Reagan's politically risky response as an affirmation of the idea that one man with courage makes a majority, McCartin writes as though he were unburdening himself of troubling news. Looking back, he says, "It is clear now that fallout from the strike has hurt workers and distorted our politics in ways Reagan himself did not advocate." Predictably, the charge is made more in sorrow than in anger, so as not to throw its author off his high horse.
Who or what is to blame for the hurt and distortion out there? The University of California at Berkeley's George Lakoff -- another academic with friends in Democrat circles -- would call the culprit poor framing. "Over time," McCartin writes, "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."
Behold the Law of Unintended Consequences. In the McCartin reading of history, the Great Communicator did not communicate as effectively as he could have to the Republicans who followed in his footsteps. What should have been romanticized as a confrontation between a stalwart sheriff and a group of desperadoes entered collective memory as a fight between cowboys and aliens, which is not the same thing (one point of view yields open range; the other yields open season). Consequently, Republicans now loathe public-sector unions and spend too much time recruiting people like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to teach "Defense Against the Dark Arts" classes. (Work with me here; the Harry Potter movie metaphor is more plausible than what's going to happen when Maureen Dowd embraces Rise of the Planet of the Apes as a documentary on the Tea Party movement, which of course she will do, sooner or later, because that movie's tagline about evolution becoming revolution wants to be recycled into a screed about Michele Bachmann's "scary" eyes or Paul Ryan's "sinister" bonhomie).
One curious thing about McCartin's essay is how hard it tries to exonerate President Reagan. Despite advancing a thesis that lumps the firing of public-sector employees with the subsequent firing of striking workers in the private sector by other people, McCartin is at pains to say that Reagan understood the role of collective bargaining, not least because he'd once led the Screen Actors Guild in a strike himself. That understanding, McCartin says, made Reagan different from modern Republicans. This is a favorite game played by progressives who write about President Reagan. Because the man became a conservative icon, older progressives see nothing to be gained from admitting that they once hated him. Hatred doesn't mix well with the sweet reason they prefer to be seen drinking. Instead they look at politicians today and say Reagan was different, hoping that open-minded readers will ask themselves how different he was, and forget that the answer they gave while Reagan held office was "not different enough."
McCartin claims that Ronald Reagan's forceful response to an illegal strike propelled Republicans further right than Reagan himself was, but in writing 800 words for the New York Times, he had no room -- and possibly no inclination-- to explore whether Reagan would have thought that a bad thing, whether Republican movement rightward has been matched by a Democrat lurch left, or whether the naked partisanship of organizations like the Service Employees International Union explains as much about current attitudes as anything the Gipper did to air traffic controllers thirty years ago. It's a pity McCartin didn't get into those questions; they can be fun to think about in the few minutes before the house lights are dimmed for summer's desperate wizards, resourceful cowboys, and wrathful apes.