A Retrospective on the PATCO Strategy
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Hurd, Richard W.
[Excerpt] The destruction of PATCO has been written off by most labor leaders as the inevitable result of an ill-conceived challenge to an anti-union U.S. President. Although there is widespread sympathy for the rank and file members who lost their jobs in an attempt to exercise collective bargaining rights in the best tradition of the U.S. labor movement, there is at the same time much disdain for the actions of the national officers of PATCO, most notably President Bob Poli. Although the criticisms of the officers are at least partially valid, it is important to recognize that the strategic miscalculations they made were by no means unique. It is even more important to give PATCO's leaders and members credit for the implementation of a brilliantly conceived internal organizing campaign. Critics of PATCO conveniently forget that it was a small union by AFL-CIO standards, with only 15,000 members. Furthermore, the membership was scattered across the country in some 400 different facilities. Although the regional flight control centers typically employed 200 to 400 air traffic controllers, the majority of PATCO members worked in airport towers and belonged to small locals. Under the circumstances, preparing for a possible strike was a logistical nightmare. The legal prohibition of job actions by federal employees made the task all the most difficult. PATCO's ability to stage a strike which was supported by 75 percent of its members even after President Reagan's firing deadline had passed was a truly remarkable feat. Unfortunately the internal organizing consumed virtually all of the attention of the national officers, and the strike was lost because of flaws in other aspects of the union's strategy. PATCO's failure can be directly traced to the fact that its unsuccessful external relations were poor, and political activities were misguided. Another crucial weakness was a lack of understanding of economic factors, which led PATCO to overestimate its own strength. Because of the high visibility of the strike, these mistakes were magnified to such a degree that PATCO's officials were widely criticized (even within the labor movement) as bullheaded, inept, misguided, foolhardy, and worse. Because the flaws in PATCO's strategy are not unique, it would be a mistake to ignore the experiences of this feisty little union. In the discussion that follows, the various aspects of PATCO's approach are considered with particular attention to the specific lessons which can be drawn from the experience. The most important and least discussed contribution of PATCO was its internal organizing program. After reviewing the implementation of this most positive part of the PATCO game plan, the discussion will turn to the components which were not handled as effectively.
Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization; PATCO; labor movement; unions; organizing