From time to time, someone under 30 will ask me, "When did this all begin, America's downward slide?" They say they've heard of a time when working people could raise a family and send the kids to college on just one parent's income (and that college in states like California and New York was almost free). That anyone who wanted a decent paying job could get one. That people only worked five days a week, eight hours a day, got the whole weekend off and had a paid vacation every summer. That many jobs were union jobs, from baggers at the grocery store to the guy painting your house, and this meant that no matter how "lowly" your job was you had guarantees of a pension, occasional raises, health insurance and someone to stick up for you if you were unfairly treated.
Young people have heard of this mythical time -- but it was no myth, it was real. And when they ask, "When did this all end?" I say, "It ended on this day: August 5th, 1981."
Beginning on this date, 30 years ago, Big Business and the Right Wing decided to "go for it" -- to see if they could actually destroy the middle class so that they could become richer themselves.
And they've succeeded.
On August 5, 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired every member of the air traffic controllers union (PATCO) who'd defied his order to return to work and declared their union illegal. They had been on strike for just two days.
It was a bold and brash move. No one had ever tried it. What made it even bolder was that PATCO was one of only three unions that had endorsed Reagan for president! It sent a shock wave through workers across the country. If he would do this to the people who were with him, what would he do to us?
Reagan had been backed by Wall Street in his run for the White House and they, along with right-wing Christians, wanted to restructure America and turn back the tide that President Franklin D. Roosevelt started -- a tide that was intended to make life better for the average working person. The rich hated paying better wages and providing benefits. They hated paying taxes even more. And they despised unions. The right-wing Christians hated anything that sounded like socialism or holding out a helping hand to minorities or women.
Reagan promised to end all that. So when the air traffic controllers went on strike, he seized the moment. In getting rid of every single last one of them and outlawing their union, he sent a clear and strong message: The days of everyone having a comfortable middle class life were over. America, from now on, would be run this way:
* The super-rich will make more, much much more, and the rest of you will scramble for the crumbs that are left.
* Everyone must work! Mom, Dad, the teenagers in the house! Dad, you work a second job! Kids, here's your latch-key! Your parents might be home in time to put you to bed.
* 50 million of you must go without health insurance! And health insurance companies: you go ahead and decide who you want to help -- or not.
* Unions are evil! You will not belong to a union! You do not need an advocate! Shut up and get back to work! No, you can't leave now, we're not done. Your kids can make their own dinner.
* You want to go to college? No problem -- just sign here and be in hock to a bank for the next 20 years!
* What's "a raise"? Get back to work and shut up!- Advertisement -
And so it went. But Reagan could not have pulled this off by himself in 1981. He had some big help:
The biggest organization of unions in America told its members to cross the picket lines of the air traffic controllers and go to work. And that's just what these union members did. Union pilots, flight attendants, delivery truck drivers, baggage handlers -- they all crossed the line and helped to break the strike. And union members of all stripes crossed the picket lines and continued to fly.
1 | 2