Rewriting History: Reagan Inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame

by Jack R. Johnson

I know we are suffering outrage fatigue, but in the arena of bad ideas, offering Ronald Reagan a spot in the International Labor Hall of Fame is like queuing up Attila the Hun for a Nobel Peace prize. That hasn’t stopped Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta who, you might recall, refused to support basic worker protections during his confirmation hearings, and has remained non-committal at best on minimum wage and overtime rules. Acosta announced Reagan’s induction last Thursday, August 24th, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential library. Ouch.

Imagining the lives of Caesar Chavez, Eugene V. Debs, or Mother Jones, all of whom are inductees, it’s difficult to see how Reagan would fit the criteria for induction which includes improving working conditions, wages or quality of lives of working families. Reagan’s list of anti-labor activity is both wide and deep. According to Dick Meister, during his two terms as President of the United States, Reagan attempted to lower the minimum wage for younger workers, neuter the child labor and anti-sweatshop laws, tax fringe benefits, and cut back job training programs for the unemployed. He tried to replace thousands of federal employees with temporary workers who would not have civil service or union protections.

True, as Acosta noted, early in his life, Reagan was President of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s and 1950s. He led SAG through three successive strikes, but he was notoriously pro-management even then, forging a strike-ending agreement in 1959 that greatly weakened the union. Reagan finally resigned under membership pressure before his term ended.

As President of the United States, it was no different. One of Reagan’s first acts in 1981 was to fire 11,000 striking Air Traffic Controllers, bar them from government jobs for life, and decertify the union. Reagan didn’t just fire a handful of strikers; he crushed one of the most powerful government unions in the country, burnt their crops to ashes, and plowed their field with salt. This action and subsequent decertification led the way for the decimation of unions across the nation.

According to the New York Times, more than any other labor dispute of the past three decades, Reagan’s confrontation with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (Patco), undermined the bargaining power of American workers and their labor unions. It also stigmatized union membership in general. Using a strike as a leveraging tool for contract negotiations became a venial activity more associated with greed than equalizing the employee/employer playing field.

Naturally, Alan Greenspan loved it: “his action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.”

As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson observed in 2004, the firing was “an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employers got that message loud and clear – illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps who could not, shipping factories and jobs abroad.”

By 2010, the number of workers participating in walkouts was less than 2 percent of what it had been when Reagan led the actors’ strike in 1952. Lacking the leverage that strikes once provided, unions were unable to pressure employers to increase wages as productivity rose. As a consequence, inequality has ballooned to a level not seen since Reagan’s boyhood in the 1920s.

In 2011, notorious union buster Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin invoked Reagan’s handling of Patco as he prepared to “change history” by stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights in a party-line vote.

This leads to a question. Should organized labor honor the very person who helped to bring about labor’s demise in the United States? It seems wildly Orwellian, but then again Reagan — who famously called trees ‘polluters’, and MX Missile systems  ‘peacekeepers’ – would probably think it just dandy. The only thing that would be more historically grotesque, I suppose, would be President Trump saying Nazis are fine people, too.



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