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One of Joe Biden’s first actions as president was to begin to fulfill his promise to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” and fire Peter Robb, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. This was an unusual act for a new president, but Robb’s sacking was of great symbolic importance. Forty years ago next week, Peter Robb played a leading role in one of Ronald Reagan’s most important domestic victories: firing the striking air traffic controllers. Reagan’s lesson is one that Biden wouldn’t dare heed, and that is a lesson we can learn about the new president himself.
In early August 1981, Reagan confronted PATCO, the one-time union of air traffic control workers. The incident took place at an early and decisive moment in his administration, and it was a revealing test for Reagan.
A strike by the 13,000 air traffic controllers threatened to grind the nation’s aviation system to a halt. At a time when the Soviet Union was challenging the United States for primacy around the world, the strike threat by federal workers captured everyone’s attention.
Reagan’s critics in the media only heightened the drama. Reagan was old, they said. (At 70, he was then the oldest man to serve as president.) He was also only four months removed from an assassination attempt that nearly killed him. Even though Reagan had won a solid victory over Jimmy Carter the previous November, the Democrats still controlled the House of Representatives, and a Reagan reelection in 1984 was far from guaranteed.
The question of what to do about the impending strike roiled the Reagan administration. At a contentious Cabinet meeting on Aug. 3, 1981, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis and others debated what to do. In addition to the economic and management issues, there was also a political wrinkle. PATCO had endorsed Reagan. At the time, unions were more powerful than they are today, and they were also somewhat more bipartisan. Alienating a union that would support a Republican was risky.
According to Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, Reagan watched his team debate matters for about 15 minutes without saying much of anything. The whole time, “he was writing on his yellow pad, writing, writing, writing.” When Reagan was done, he said, “Excuse me, fellows, but let me just read you something here. Tell me what you think about it.” Deaver recalled that the 411-word draft Reagan then read “was the statement he gave in the Rose Garden about half an hour later, word for word. Nobody changed anything.”
It’s worth reading in its entirety. Reagan said, in part, “We cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government’s reason for being. ... It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”
Reagan argued that the controllers were government employees and therefore, unlike private sector employees, not permitted to strike. Reagan did not just come up with this idea on the spot. He was a former union head himself and, as he put it, “maybe the first one to ever hold this office who is a lifetime member of an AFL-CIO union.” White House aide Martin Anderson, who years later studied Reagan’s personal writings, found that Reagan had written about this very question, of the ability of public sector unions to strike. As Anderson recalled in an oral history, “Many years ago, he had very carefully laid out, analyzed it, studied it, and said, ‘Look, they cannot strike. And if they strike, they’re gone.’”
Reagan was not alone in this view. The Heritage Foundation had put out an influential document titled “Mandate for Leadership,” with 2,000 recommendations for the Reagan administration, and the Reagan administration carried out an estimated 60% of them. One recommendation specifically addressed PATCO, warning the administration against taking a “wishy-washy” stance regarding the union.
The union leadership believed Reagan was bluffing and went ahead with the strike. Reagan held true to his word, and on Aug. 5, he fired 11,345 illegally striking air traffic controllers. In his diary, the president wrote: “How do they explain approving of law breaking — to say nothing of violation of an oath taken by each [air controller] that he or she would not strike.”
What Reagan did in firing thousands of federal employees is unimaginable today. No Democrat would consider challenging the powerful federal employee unions, and it’s unlikely that a Republican would either. As White House aide Ed Harper noted, “Calling their bluff on that was a real act of political courage. It took on a group that nobody had ever been willing to confront before.” The move worked out for Reagan. The air traffic control system bent, but it did not break. Leveraging a mix of supervisors, nonstriking controllers, and military controllers, the United States managed to maintain 80% of domestic air traffic, despite the strike. When the Reagan administration opened applications for new controllers, it received 125,000 applicants.
Reagan’s act had far-reaching implications. Foreign allies and adversaries alike were watching the new president. They had read the critics calling him an empty-headed actor or a reckless cowboy, and they knew that he was old and recently had gotten shot. The firings quieted the skeptics. Anderson explained that “when you listen to George Shultz or Henry Kissinger talk about the impact it had on foreign policy, it was stunning. Basically, the impact was that they said, ‘Oh my God, this president took on the unions and did it? He might do other things.’”
Shultz even called firing the controllers Reagan’s most important foreign policy decision. Reagan himself noted later that he thought his PATCO action “convinced people who might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said.”
Other nations took notice. On a visit to Moscow, House Speaker Tip O’Neill found that the Soviets had been impressed by Reagan’s toughness. When Canadian air traffic controllers shut down Newfoundland’s Gander Airport in support of PATCO, Reagan had his transportation secretary tell them to back down. They did. Margaret Thatcher, still a relatively new British prime minister, was clearly paying attention: She subsequently took a tougher stance against rampant union strikes that had plagued Britain for a decade.
The firings were an economic boon as well. Federal worker strikes were a somewhat regular phenomenon before the PATCO case — 39 took place between 1962 and 1981 — but there have been no major ones since that time. Business leaders also started pushing back against their own aggressive unions. Three University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business professors wrote a book called Operating During Strikes: Company Experience, NLRB Policies, and Government Regulations that described Reagan’s action as indicative of “a relatively new phenomenon in United States industrial relations — the determination of management to operate facilities when employees strike.” The number of strikes in the U.S. plummeted, from over a hundred a year to about 10 to 20 annually in recent years. Overall, union membership has gone from about 20% of the workforce four decades ago to about 10% today, with private sector union membership dropping to about 6%.
Reagan’s move won bipartisan support. A Gallup poll found that 59% of the public supported his handling of the issue, and an NBC/AP poll had the same question at 64%. More importantly, the latter found that public support for Reagan overall was up 8 percentage points from the previous month, to 63%. Conservative columnist William Safire praised Reagan’s “display of law-and-order macho” and predicted that it would provide “a reputation for strength that enables him never to have to put it to the test.”
On the Left, Washington Post columnist Meg Greenfield saw Reagan receiving “a huge infusion of presidential credibility, even among some people who deplored the act itself.” Even some domestic opponents were reluctant to criticize Reagan in the wake of the firings. A young senator named Joe Biden, interviewed in October 1981, explained Reagan’s popularity on both sides of the aisle as follows: “If I were organizing a fishing trip for my friends, Reagan is one of the first people I would invite. Everyone likes him.”
Biden, like Reagan, is relatively old for a president and, like Reagan, is facing significant challenges at home and abroad. The nation and the world are carefully watching him and his actions, wondering about the mettle of the man sitting behind the Resolute Desk. Biden looked admiringly at Reagan back in 1981, but it is unlikely he still does today in 2021. Nevertheless, Biden and all future presidents would be wise to look to Reagan for lessons in leadership. The nation and the world would breathe easier if they did.
Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former White House aide. His latest book is Fight House: Rivalries in the White House From Truman to Trump.
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