Joseph A. McCartin's compelling book arrives in the midst of heated national debate over the rights of public employees as well as the sanctification of the late Ronald Reagan by Republican politicians eager to align themselves with his “get tough” legacy. McCartin's sophisticated and engaging treatment of the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981 offers readers a nuanced portrayal of the showdown between Reagan and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), a corrective to the myth of Reagan as an unapologetic union buster, and a fascinating look at the rise and fall of PATCO.
Collision Course interweaves McCartin's account of powerful personalities and temperaments with detailed discussions of federal policy, complex political maneuvering, and the high-pressure work of air traffic controlling. The author's accessible narrative style makes this book good reading for historians of the postwar United States as well as the broader public. The book engages multiple issues including public-sector employment and labor organizing, white-collar workers and civil rights, workplace culture, class consciousness and upward mobility, the rise of the conservative Right, and Cold War politics.
McCartin does three things in this book especially well. He delves deeply into the identity and workplace culture of air traffic controllers, he chronicles the construction of PATCO from idea to labor organization, and he unravels the myth from the reality of the 1981 PATCO strike. McCartin makes sense of the incredibly complicated work of air traffic controllers and explains how training, technology, masculinity, and an authoritative Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shaped workplace culture. Building from extensive oral histories, McCartin portrays a generation of white male working-class air traffic controllers who entered the field from military service and were eager to translate their specialized training into steady, decent-paying employment and upward mobility. These men lived the mantra “work hard, play hard” and built a workplace culture around the intense stress of the job and the time spent socializing in bars after their shifts. Discussion of intergenerational conflicts over technological change as well as the civil and women's rights movements and the changing mores of the late 1960s and early 1970s allows McCartin to contextualize these workers and their world without moving too far from the discussion at hand.
A mid-air collision over New York in 1960 exposed the deep flaws in the air traffic control system and sparked interest in organizing it “in some fashion” (p. 24). McCartin argues that PATCO leaders, with the help of celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey and labor strategists from the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, built a union of professionals, not a professional organization. While John F. Kennedy's Executive Order 10988 opened the door to organizing, air traffic controllers quickly learned that real change in their pay, working conditions, and the right to bargain could come by playing politics behind the scenes and manipulating national air traffic by slowing the system down through “work to rule” tactics and sickouts. Frustrated by the autocratic and inflexible FAA, increasing workload, and the militancy of other public employees, PATCO spent nearly two years preparing to strike. McCartin's depiction of the “choir boys,” the militant national organizers who prepared the strategy and tragically miscalculated the strength of their position, offers a complex look at internal union organizing. Readers may be surprised to learn that in 1981 the federal government offered air traffic controllers more than it had ever offered its employees in any other contract (p. 269). Over the last four chapters, McCartin pieces together the 1981 strike as an internal struggle among PATCO militants and leaders, an ideological debate within the Reagan administration, a challenge to the national labor movement, and a test for the deregulating airline industry.
How did this strike change America? McCartin argues, “Carried out on a national stage and covered incessantly by both national and local media outlets, the strike would capture the attention of the nation like no other labor conflict of the post–World War II era. Both labor and its opponents realized even in its first hours that the future direction of American labor relations might be affected by the outcome of this momentous walkout” (p. 10). The subtitle here may be a bit of an overstatement. Indeed, as McCartin acknowledges, many other Reagan policies did more to chip away at the security of the American working class in the 1980s. However, it is the myth of PATCO and the powerfully charged lessons American workers and employers believe they learned from the strike that have changed labor relations. That very small quibble aside, this book makes a substantive and important contribution to postwar American labor history.