Union-Buster Memorial Airport
Maybe they should have called it Union-Busting Memorial National Airport,
That would have more appropriately highlighted one of Ronald Reagan's
most notorious achievements, the decision to fire 1,800 striking air traffic
controllers early in his first term. Congress's decision to name Washington's
airport for Reagan dishonors working people across the country.
Want a sense of how bitter the memories are? Here's Randy Schwitz, executive
vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the
successor union to the broken PATCO: "I'd rather have a hot poker in
my eye than have an airport named after him [Reagan]."
The air traffic controllers' firing was about much more than the men
and women who help guarantee air traffic safety. Although it wasn't the
era's first large-scale firing or permanent replacement of striking workers,
it certainly was the most prominent. Reagan's action sent a message to employers
that they could act against striking or organizing workers with virtual
impunity. And it sent a message to workers that they struck or sought to
organize at their own peril. (The administration backed up those messages
by appointing members to the National Labor Relations Board who had little
apparent interest in enforcing the nation's labor laws.)
A series of bitter labor conflicts over the next decade and a half would
drive that message home: Hormel, Continental Airlines, Eastern Airlines,
Caterpillar, A.E. Staley and many others. Occasionally unions were able
to resist successfully with aggressive and innovative tactics, public outreach
and unflinching solidarity-as at Pittston Coal and more recently UPS-but
these labor victories have been the exception.
Big business has capitalized on the new political and cultural climate
which Reagan helped create-as well as enhanced power from increased capital
mobility, foreign competition, downsizing and rapid technological change-to
wage full-scale class warfare against working people. Employers use threats
of plant relocations to bust unions; they rely on weak or non-existent unions
to permit downsizing; they capitalize on technological change to speed restructuring
and to shift production abroad. Many workers are so intimidated that they
fear unionizing or even asking for a raise.
Here is how bad things are: The most comprehensive study done on plant-closing
threats in union organizing drives found that employers threaten to close
the plant in more than half of all union-organizing drives.
The study's author, Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education
research at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, found that,
during unionizing drives, employers regularly refer to NAFTA and Mexican
maquiladoras to prove how easy it would be for them to move operations.
She reports that one company in Michigan even parked flat-bed trucks loaded
with shrink-wrapped production equipment-accompanied by signs reading "Mexico
Transfer Job"-in front of the plant for the duration of a union organizing
Plant-closing threats are regularly accompanied by a host of other ruthless
(and often illegal) anti-union measures. In union organizing drives from
1993 to 1995, Bronfenbrenner found that more than a third of employers discharged
workers for union activity, 38 percent gave bribes or special favors to
those who opposed the union and 14 percent used electronic surveillance
of union activists.
Sixty-four percent of employers in union election campaigns used more
than five anti-union tactics, ranging from holding captive audience meetings
where employer representatives lecture employees to threatening to report
workers to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Most astoundingly, where union organizing drives are successful, employers
do in fact close their plant, in whole or in part, 15 percent of the time.
All of this cannot, of course, be attributed to Ronald Reagan. But he
did more than his share to help bring it about. It is the shame of the U.S.
Congress that it decided to "honor" such a legacy.