Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Joseph A. McCartin's "Collision Course"

Joseph A. McCartin is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University and Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. His books include Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, which won the 1999 Philip Taft Prize for best book in American labor history.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
PATCO leaders felt betrayed. Some returning controllers were threatened with indictment and firing unless they signed statements admitting their culpability. More than 150 ended up claiming their Fifth Amendment rights when asked whether they had been aware of plans for a concerted job action. Outraged at the pressure controllers were receiving from their managers, PATCO leaders threatened to bring air traffic ‘to a stop’ on Monday June 23 if the government did not cease such harassment. The FAA was ‘sitting on a time bomb and this thing might go off at any moment,’ Rock warned.
This passage from Collision Course brings out one of the main themes of the book: the historic 1981 conflict between President Ronald Reagan and the members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) that did so much to change American labor relations and politics was in the making for more than a decade. The passage describes what happened after PATCO leaders called off a “sickout” staged in 1969 by several thousand PATCO members, air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The controllers had called in sick en masse to protest the FAA’s failure to honor promises it had made to them a year earlier. The onset of the job action, like much of this book’s narrative, was surprising and unusual: controllers called in sick after hearing a code phrase uttered by their legal adviser, the famous trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey, during an appearance on the “Tonight Show,” the late night television talk show hosted by Johnny Carson, who then served as an honorary member of the PATCO board of directors. The sickout was called off after the FAA promised there would be no reprisals. Yet, as the passage suggests, reprisals came nonetheless.

Collision Course tells the fascinating story of air traffic controllers like Mike Rock (mentioned in the passage) who built a union in the federal service against great odds in the 1960s. It shows how their relationship with their government employer deteriorated over time. It recounts how they forged an unlikely alliance with presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980, in hopes that he would help them win long-sought goals, including higher salaries and reduced workplace stress. It explains how miscalculations by both the Reagan administration and the controllers led to the historic strike of 1981, which Reagan dramatically broke by firing the strikers. And it describes how this momentous conflict changed the course of American labor relations and politics. Through the story of the air traffic controllers and Reagan, the book in turn gives us a sobering glimpse into what has happened to working-class America, the labor movement, and our nation’s politics over the last half-century.
Learn more about the book and author at Joseph McCartin's Collision Course blog.

--Marshal Zeringue