Union-Buster Memorial Airport



Maybe they should have called it Union-Busting Memorial National Airport, instead.

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 drive.

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.

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