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Est. April 5, 2002
Sept 9, 2021 - Issue 878
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The war on workers in the U.S. has been going on for a long time, but the firing of 11,500 air traffic controllers by then-President Ronald Reagan 40 years ago was the signal to Corporate America and its politicians that it was open season on workers and their unions, the only thing that gives them power.

A writer on The Intercept recently referred to that cynical act by Reagan as “the murder of the U.S. middle class,” and one might think that he was engaged in hyperbole, but the reality is that in one deft proclamation, Reagan sentenced those who thought they were “middle class” to a direct move into the working class. But weren’t they getting to that already?

A quick look at income and wealth statistics alone shows that, for the past four decades, what has passed for middle class has experienced the stagnation of wages and wealth. Any number of graphs by several research organizations show an almost flat line of growth since those Reagan years, while the graphs show that the top 1 percent has increased income and wealth to be almost off the charts.

For the past 40 years, it has become a necessity for the former middle-class families to send at least two persons into the workforce just to make ends meet. The days of one major income being enough to pay a mortgage or rent, buy food, pay for a car, buy health care, keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer, and all the rest of daily living are long gone. So, it has taken two (or three) incomes per household to maintain that way of life. It leaves little time for rest time, vacations, time for reflection, and time for family. In other industrialized nations, that would not be middle class, but would definitely qualify as working class. Workers in few industrialized nations have to work that many hours in a household to survive.

The Economic Policy Institute published a chart in 2015 that showed that the pay of the top 1 percent of Americans rose 138 percent between 1980 and 2010, while the pay for the bottom 90 percent rose only 15 percent. It’s just one of many research papers that show the stagnation of the working class over the period. In the past five years, not much has changed, but perhaps, things have even worsened for pay and wealth for the vast majority. In addition, the burden falls even more heavily on black and other people of color, because of the country’s seemingly intractable flaw of structural racism.

At the beginning of this period, along came Ronald Reagan with his nonsensical idea that if everyone could just see his “morning in America” and live on the meager portion of the American largesse that he and Corporate America were willing to let them gather up, then everything would be fine. Touted as the only president that was a member of a union (he was president of the Screen Actors Guild for several years), he went about destroying the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a union of some 11,500, who lost their jobs and were prohibited from federal employment forever by Reagan.

Why did PATCO members strike, when they knew strikes by federal workers were forbidden by law? The job of an air traffic controller is one of the most stressful and they sought relief through fewer hours in the towers and increased staffing. They met with candidate Reagan who assured them he would give them a hearing as president. They endorsed him, along with a few other unions in 1980: the Teamsters and the National Maritime Union. After he was elected, the controllers’ union tried to meet with the president, but were not accommodated and, in frustration, they struck.

Reagan gave them two days to return to work and, when they didn’t, he fired them. There were only a few who returned to work, but 11,500 lost their incomes, their careers, their livelihoods, and whatever pensions they were entitled to. There have been many analyses of that strike and the aftermath, which was a tsunami of attacks on workers and their unions. Forty years after that initial assault, union membership among American workers stands at a paltry 6.3 percent of the workforce. The power of solidarity that comes with union membership was diminished, until in 2021, workers are at the mercy of capital, which provides just enough for families to get by, as long as they don’t ask for safe and healthy workplaces and time to raise their children.

Members showed their naivete in trusting candidate Reagan to keep his word as president. They were not experienced in trade unionism and really didn’t know how to conduct a strike or how to parlay their professionalism into strength in the political realm. For that, they needed to be part of the union movement, which they were not.

For example, when a union is on strike, workers set up picket lines and PATCO did that. But, in Albany, New York, for example, on Labor Day, a supporter found that there was not a single picket at the entrance of the airport. One would have thought that the strike was over (it was before massive cell phone and Internet use). The Albany controllers were invited to the Labor Day parade in New York City and that’s where they went.

PATCO and its members should not be blamed for thinking that the flying world could not function without them. Other unions suffer the same syndrome. Corporate America has made a science of separating one group from another, one union from another. They do it with the American people, in general, and that’s what has brought us to the condition the nation and world are in. It seems impossible for Americans to join together to combat and conquer Covid-19 and it is even more difficult to convince them that global heating and radical climate change will make it impossible for humans to survive. At least, life as we know it, will not be possible.

The one institution of rank-and-file citizens that could be a force for changing the way things are is organized labor, if its members could be brought together to demand their leadership to take action as a movement. That potential power is one of the reasons that one of the first actions of would-be dictators and tyrants is to demolish unions and their movement. In the U.S., that has happened, not in the short term of a petty authoritarian, but over the past half-century. A vibrant union movement inside an active labor movement is a grave threat to the power of Corporate America and the oligarchs who run the nation will not tolerate it.

Many of the most intractable problems of the nation would be mitigated, if not solved, if the people could be brought together to act on the problems of racism, poverty, hunger, disparity in wealth and wages, lopsided funding of education in poor neighborhoods, and lack of healthcare for all. The masters of division in Corporate America have worked overtime for generations, to the extent that the U.S. has seen one of its own, the former president, who intentionally sowed hatred, division, and confusion. As the loser of the 2020 election, he has continued to sow the same toxins among the people, who seem to be awakening to the dangers we face. It’s late, but not too late.

Perhaps, PATCO will not have died in vain, if the lessons of its demise can be conveyed to workers and the working class: Join together, in unity, educate yourselves and your children. Know your enemy and struggle against the forces that intend to keep you in an indentured state, if not as wage slaves. The answer lies in solidarity among the people. Survival of Earth depends on it.

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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